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Explanation & Analysis of SAT Test Scores

by Kevin Wandrei

The SAT is a perennial source of angst for high school seniors. For a valedictorian aiming for the Ivy League, nothing short of a perfect score will do. For others, an average score will satisfy. Either way, students often struggle to understand what the exam is testing and to interpret their scores in context. The SAT's content and scoring metric are both easy to understand.

The Sections

The SAT exam is composed of three individual 800-point sections -- critical reading, mathematics and writing -- for a cumulative total of 2,400 points. Each section is scored between 200 and 800 points, so the total score for the test can range from 600 to 2,400 points. The average score per section is approximately 500 for an average total score on the test of 1,500 points. This average is calibrated to make the raw number score a useable metric in college admissions.

Percentiles

When college admissions offices use SAT scores, it's the percentile rank that they're interested in, not the raw point scores for the sections. This is largely because the point scale means something slightly different for each section. For example, a 500 score on the critical-reading section puts a student in the 51st percentile, but the same score on mathematics only puts a student in the 45th percentile. A 500 score on writing, meanwhile, earns a student a 55th-percentile ranking.

Critical Reading

The critical reading section is a multiple-choice fan's dream: it consists of three sections, with a total of 67 multiple-choice questions. Students have up to 70 minutes to complete this part of the test. The first two sections are 25 minutes in length, while the third is 20 minutes. In content, critical reading assesses a student's strengths in reasoning skills, reading comprehension and vocabulary. It does this with a mix of passage-based questions and sentence-completion questions. Students are asked to read a passage and answer questions about it. Also, students might have to complete blanks in sentences to demonstrate their vocabulary knowledge.

Mathematics

As with the critical-reading section, the mathematics section lasts for 70 minutes, with two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. Multiple-choice questions do not dominate mathematics as they do for critical reading. The mathematics section features 10 student-produced response questions and 44 multiple-choice questions. In content, mathematics steers clear of calculus and trigonometry and instead focuses on algebra and functions, numbers and operations, geometry and measurement and data analysis, statistics and probability.

Writing

The writing section was added in 2005 and mostly copied a previously separate writing-only SAT exam. In format, it is different from the other two sections. At the beginning of each SAT exam, students are given 25 minutes to write an essay based on a prompt. This is the major piece of the writing section, and it is scored on a 2 to 12 scale. It is followed by one 25-minute section and one 10-minute section of multiple-choice questions. The content focuses on improving sentences, identifying sentence errors and improving paragraphs.

About the Author

Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan, Textbooks.com, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.

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