A SAT Score report lays next to a copy of the PSAT.

Sliding Scales: Easier Questions Result in Lower SAT Scores

Beginning with the June 2018 SAT, students across the country noticed that their SAT scores were lower than anticipated given the number of questions they had answered correctly. These students took to social media, forming Twitter accounts like @rescoreJuneSAT, starting petitions, and writing to the College Board looking for answers. The story was picked up by news outlets such as NBC and The Washington Post. The College Board released a statement and published an FAQ on SAT scoring to assert the fairness of the test.

While the College Board does not publicly release the June test, a number of more recent tests have been made available through the College Board’s SAT Question and Answer Service, and there seems to be a downward trend in scores for students who answered the same number of questions correctly, with Math and Writing scores experiencing the biggest changes.

In order to compare how the SAT scale has changed, we’ll consider three hypothetical students. For each student, we’ll compare how their raw score (or number of correct answers) compares on different test versions.

Student A — 90% correct

Raw score October 2016 score October 2017 score October 2018 score
Reading/Writing 730 720 680
   Reading 47/52    37    36    35
   Writing 40/44    36    36    33
Math 52/58 720 750 700
Total 1450 1470 1380


Student B — 75% correct

Raw score October 2016 score October 2017 score October 2018 score
Reading/Writing  620 630 590
   Reading 39/52    31    32    31
   Writing 33/44    31    31    28
Math 44/58 640 660 620
Total 1260 1290 1210


Student C — 50% correct

Raw score October 2016 score October 2017 score October 2018 score
Reading/Writing 490 500 450
   Reading 26/52    25    26    24
   Writing 22/44    24    24    21
Math 29/58 520 530 510
Total 1010 1030 960

Below is a graph of the score that each of the above students would get on the publicly available tests if they had answered the same number of questions correct each time.

A chart comparing the SAT scores of three students over time. The scores are fairly stable, and then they decrease fairly sharply after June 2018.
Tests that have a number in addition to a year (e.g. Test 5) are available in the Official SAT Study Guide 2020 Edition. Test 1 and Test 3 do not include a date because they were released before the first redesigned SAT test date in March 2016 and were never administered.
So, what does it all mean?

The changes to the SAT scaled scores suggest that questions on the SAT have gotten easier, especially in the Writing and Math. The College Board uses scaled scores to control for the variations between different versions of the SAT: the average raw score on each section of the SAT will correlate to a 500 scaled score regardless of whether the average is higher or lower than in previous administrations. When the mean raw score on a particular test is higher, then the test is generally considered easier; however, this test will also have a more aggressive curve to adjust for the higher average raw score. It’s worth noting that the SAT scale is created before the test is given, so it is not likely that students are doing better than anticipated on the test.

Okay, but what can students do about it?

• Practice what is difficult. By practicing what is difficult, students can ensure that they are well-prepared for whatever difficulty they encounter on test day. Like a basketball player who practices with ankle weights and then takes them off for the game, students will be pleasantly surprised to find that the test feels easier than the work they’ve been doing to prepare. For students who are preparing on their own with the Official SAT Study Guide 2020 Edition, Test 7 and Test 10 are most aligned with the current trend in SAT scoring, so they can be good choices for full-length, timed practice tests.

• Improve scores by mastering the test rather than fixating on the score. A student’s sectional scores will naturally fluctuate a bit based on any number of factors. As students prepare, it can help for them to prioritize the experience of taking the practice test, how the number correct changes from test to test, and what questions felt most challenging. If students decide to calculate their scaled scores, they should keep in mind that there may be a significant difference between this score and the score that they actually get on their next official SAT.

• Consider both the SAT and ACT to determine which test is the best fit for your student. Open Door Education offers free diagnostic tests and consultations to help families navigate the college admissions testing process.