Test Prep

Are the SAT and ACT Graded on A Curve?

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You've heard rumblings over the years and wondered, but no one could ever really tell you for sure: Are the SAT and ACT graded on a curve?

First, let's clarify what it means to "grade on a curve." You may have had a few teachers by now who use this grading strategy. Basically, it means that your teacher realizes when an exam was too difficult for the class and bumped up all of the grades. So if everyone in your chemistry class got a 40 percent or lower on the mid-semester exam and your teacher doesn't want everyone to get a failing grade, she would adjust which letter grade the percentage corresponds to. The 40 percent becomes an A, the 35 percent becomes a B, etc. Great idea, right?

But as a matter of fact, grading on a curve does not exist in the scoring process used by the SAT and ACT. There you go, myth busted.

Scoring Process Fundamentals

Before we get into what kind of grading does exist for these tests, let's look at the scoring process basics for the SAT and ACT. The process is similar for both tests in these ways:

- You get one point for every correct answer (excluding the essay).

- You lose no points for incorrect answers or blank questions.

- You earn a raw score based on the questions you get right, which is then converted to a scaled score.

The main difference in the two scoring processes is that the four section scores of the ACT are averaged together. In the SAT, the section scores are added together.

Focus on the Equating Process

It seems that the idea of the SAT and ACT being graded on a curve is due to the fact that your “raw score” (how many questions you got right) is converted to a “scaled score,” which is somewhere between 200-800 for each section of the SAT and between one and 36 for the entire ACT.

Sara Bildner, a counselor and test prep tutor at Mosaic College Prep in Los Angeles, Calif., explains that “a raw score of 40 on a Math section does not equal the same scaled score for every SAT, because sometimes there are a different number of questions, or the section is more difficult on one exam than another. That's where the confusion of thinking the test is 'curved' comes in -- the test is 'scaled' rather than curved.”

The scoring method that involves scaling is called the “equating process.” How everyone else does on the exam does not affect how you do. What does affect your score is the difficulty of the exam — which is determined through extensive studying and data testing on the part of the exam writers, Bildner says. When an exam varies in difficulty from one month to the next, the ACT and SAT change what score a raw score would equal from to month to month to compensate for the variation.

Equating ensures that scores of 28 on the Science section of the ACT earned in two different months are equivalent in skill level. This means that the students who took the tests demonstrated the same level of knowledge and skill, even though the questions and passages differed from test to test.

“If every student performed poorly on the ACT or SAT one month, everyone's scores would not be raised, as it would on a curved test. A 650 in the SAT Math section means the same thing, whether you earned it in May of 2018 or in May of 2008. Your score is not affected by how anyone else performed on the test,” Bildner points out.

In short, the scoring process doesn't include any magic formula or mystery -- it's just data science. Now you hopefully have one less thing to worry about and can get back to focusing on your test preparation.