Test Prep

Why You Shouldn't Want an "Easy" SAT

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When the scores for the June 2018 SAT were released, high-scoring students were not happy. The curve on the SAT math section was really unforgiving to high-scoring students. The test is a reminder that the SAT is scored on a curve, and no one actually wants an "easy" SAT.

Which is Easier: ACT or SAT?


In recent months, the College Board has been sending a survey to students asking them which test they think is easier, the SAT or the ACT?

It is hard to imagine why the College Board would ask this question unless it wanted to change the image of the test to make it more popular among states, school districts and students. For years, the ACT has had the reputation of being an easier exam, so perhaps the College Board wants to reverse that image.

The problem is that an easier test is no good for students or for colleges using test scores to evaluate applicants. To explain why, we need to discuss one of the fundamental aspects of standardized tests: Equating.

How Does the SAT Curve Work?

For a standardized test to be of any value, it must be possible to compare the scores of someone who took the test in June 2018 to someone who took it in March 2018, June 2017, October 2016, etc. College Board cannot just give the same test at each administration, and it’s really hard to make each test exactly as hard as every other test. As a result, test makers need to adjust the scaled score, which is based on the raw number of correct answers, on each test to make sure they’re comparable. Learn how the SAT is scored.

When the June 2018 SAT scores came out, students took to Reddit and other online forums to decry the Math curve for the exam. Students who got fewer questions wrong on the June test than on previous attempts woke up to lower Math scores.

Difficulty, to be sure, is in the eye of the beholder. Some, or perhaps most, students were bound to find the June Math sections to be difficult. When we call the Math section “easy,” we do not mean that everyone should have found it so. We mean that the scoring curve indicates, objectively, that students tended to get fewer questions wrong than they did on other SATs. That made the curve less forgiving.

Score equating is done before the test is ever given, so it’s worth saying that the actual performances on test day did not affect the curve. College Board knew it was going to administer an easier test, which meant more students would get more questions right, and the scale would need to undergo adjustment. As a result, small differences had a larger impact than usual.

To a degree, this is how it should be. A student who misses two questions on an easier test should not get as high a score as a student who misses two questions on a hard test. Equating takes care of that issue.

Why Easy SATs Can Hurt High-Scorers

1. It's Tough for Colleges to Evaluate Their Scores

The equating applied to the June 2018 SAT suggests that the College Board made the test far too easy to distinguish among high scorers who received a score of 650 (86th percentile) or higher. That is a problem for those colleges who treat a 650, a 700, a 750 and an 800 as accurate indicators of real differences in Math ability.

2. No Room for Errors

It is a problem, too, for high-scoring students who make the occasional careless error or who mis-bubble on questions that they are quite capable of answering. With a typical curve, there’s some cushion to mitigate the impact of such errors. There was no cushion on the June 2018 SAT.

It might be fair to say that the most accomplished students shouldn’t make those kinds of errors, but is that true? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the most accomplished test takers don’t make those kinds of errors? Small mistakes under time pressure can make a big difference in life, no doubt, but doing well in college tends to be about doing well over time with the possibility to revise, rethink and do better.

Next Steps: Should You Retake the SAT?

The students shocked by the June 2018 SAT will have a couple more chances to retake the test. View upcoming SAT test dates. But what if the same thing happens in October or November, when seniors often take their last shot at the exam? We have to hope that this exam is an anomaly, and the College Board won’t be administering too many more “easy” tests.

We would be completely and utterly shocked to see the College Board rescale the exam, as many students and families are demanding. It is important to note that college admissions officers are not going to weigh how many questions a student got wrong. They will look at the sores. Nor will they discount a June 2018 SAT score as somehow compromised. If a student did well on the June exam, she or he should be proud and not worry at all about admissions officers thinking that the June test was a bad one.