The SAT is a standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States. It was first introduced in 1926, and its name and scoring have changed several times, being originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, then the SAT I: Reasoning Test, then the SAT Reasoning Test, and now simply the SAT.
The SAT is owned and published by the College Board, a private, nonprofit corporation in the United States. It is developed and administered on behalf of the College Board by the Educational Testing Service. The test is intended to assess a student’s readiness for college. The current SAT, introduced in 2016, takes 3 hours to finish plus 50 minutes for the SAT with essay
SAT consists of three major sections: Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing. Each section receives a score on the scale of 200–800. All scores are multiples of 10. Total scores are calculated by adding up scores of the three sections. Each major section is divided into three parts. There are 10 sub-sections, including an additional 25-minute experimental or “equating” section that may be in any of the three major sections. The experimental section is used to normalize questions for future administrations of the SAT and does not count toward the final score. The test contains 3 hours and 45 minutes of actual timed sections; most administrations (after accounting for orientation, distribution of materials, completion of biographical sections, and fifteen minutes of timed breaks) run for about four and a half hours. The questions range from easy, medium, and hard depending on the scoring from the experimental sections. Easier questions typically appear closer to the beginning of the section while harder questions are toward the end in certain sections. This is not true for every section (the Critical Reading section is in chronological order) but it is the rule of thumb mainly for math, grammar, and the 19 sentence-completions in the reading sections.
The Critical Reading section of the SAT is made up of one section with 52 questions which should be completed in 65 minutes, with varying types of questions, including sentence completions and questions about short and long reading passages. Critical Reading sections normally begin with 5 to 8 sentence completion questions; the remainder of the questions are focused on the reading passages. Sentence completions generally test the student’s vocabulary and understanding of sentence structure and organization by requiring the student to select one or two words that best complete a given sentence. The bulk of the Critical Reading section is made up of questions regarding reading passages, in which students read short excerpts on social sciences, humanities, physical sciences, or personal narratives and answer questions based on the passage. Certain sections contain passages asking the student to compare two related passages; generally, these consist of shorter reading passages. The number of questions about each passage is proportional to the length of the passage. Unlike in the Mathematics section, where questions go in the order of difficulty, questions in the Critical Reading section go in the order of the passage. Overall, question sets near the beginning of the section are easier, and question sets near the end of the section are harder.
An example of an SAT “grid-in” math question and the correctly gridded answer.
The mathematics portion of the SAT is divided into two sections: Math Test – Calculator and Math Test – No Calculator. In total, the SAT math test is 80 minutes long and includes 58 questions: 45 multiple choice questions and 13 grid-in questions. The multiple choice questions have four possible answers; the grid-in questions are free response and require the test taker to provide an answer.
- The Math Test – No Calculator section has 20 questions (15 multiple choice and 5 grid-in) and lasts 25 minutes.
- The Math Test – Calculator section has 38 questions (30 multiple choice and 8 grid-in) and lasts 55 minutes.
Several scores are provided to the test taker for the math test. A sub-score (on a scale of 1 to 15) is reported for each of three categories of math content: “Heart of Algebra” (linear equations, systems of linear equations, and linear functions), “Problem Solving and Data Analysis” (statistics, modeling, and problem-solving skills), and “Passport to Advanced Math” (non-linear expressions, radicals, exponentials and other topics that form the basis of more advanced math). A test score for the math test is reported on a scale of 10 to 40, and a section score (equal to the test score multiplied by 20) is reported on a scale of 200 to 800.
The writing portion of the SAT, based on but not directly comparable to the old SAT II subject test in writing (which in turn was developed from the old Test of Standard Written English (TSWE), includes multiple choice questions and a brief essay. The essay sub-score contributes about 28% to the total writing score, with the multiple choice questions contributing 70%. This section was implemented in March 2005 following complaints from colleges about the lack of uniform examples of a student’s writing ability and critical thinking.
The multiple choice questions include error-identification questions, sentence-improvement questions, and paragraph-improvement questions. Error-identification and sentence-improvement questions test the student’s knowledge of grammar, presenting an awkward or grammatically incorrect sentence; in the error identification section, the student must locate the word producing the source of the error or indicate that the sentence has no error, while the sentence improvement section requires the student to select an acceptable fix to the awkward sentence. The paragraph improvement questions test the student’s understanding of logical organization of ideas, presenting a poorly written student essay and asking a series of questions as to what changes might be made to best improve it.
The essay section, which is always administered as the first section of the test, is 25 minutes long. All essays must be in response to a given prompt. The prompts are broad and often philosophical and are designed to be accessible to students regardless of their educational and social backgrounds.
Style of questions
Most of the questions on the SAT, except for the essay and the grid-in math responses, are multiple choice; all multiple-choice questions have five answer choices, one of which is correct. The questions of each section of the same type are generally ordered by difficulty. However, an important exception exists: Questions that follow the long and short reading passages are organized chronologically, rather than by difficulty. Ten of the questions in one of the math sub-sections are not multiple choice. They instead require the test taker to bubble in a number in a four-column grid.
The questions are weighted equally. For each correct answer, one raw point is added. For each incorrect answer one quarter of a point is deducted. No points are deducted for incorrect math grid-in questions. This ensures that a student’s mathematically expected gain from guessing is zero. The final score is derived from the raw score; the precise conversion chart varies between test administrations.
The SAT therefore recommends only making educated guesses, that is, when the test taker can eliminate at least one answer he or she thinks is wrong. Without eliminating any answers one’s probability of answering correctly is 20%. Eliminating one wrong answer increases this probability to 25% (and the expected gain to 1/16 of a point); two, a 33.3% probability (1/6 of a point); and three, a 50% probability (3/8 of a point).
|Section||Average Score||Time (Minutes)||Content|
|Writing||484||60||Grammar, usage, and diction.|
|Mathematics||511||70||Number and operations; algebra and functions; geometry; statistics, probability, and data analysis|
|Critical Reading||495||70||Vocabulary, Critical reading, and sentence-level reading|
The SAT is offered seven times a year in the United States; in October, November, December, January, March (or April, alternating), May, and June. The test is typically offered on the first Saturday of the month for the November, December, May, and June administrations. In other countries, the SAT is offered on the same dates as in the United States except for the first spring test date (i.e., March or April), which is not offered. The test was taken by 1,698,521 high school graduates in the class of 2015.
Candidates wishing to take the test may register online at the College Board’s website, by mail, or by telephone, at least three weeks before the test date.
Raw scores, scaled scores, and percentiles
Students receive their online score reports approximately three weeks after test administration (six weeks for mailed, paper scores), with each section graded on a scale of 200–800 and two sub scores for the writing section: the essay score and the multiple choice sub score. In addition to their score, students receive their percentile (the percentage of other test takers with lower scores). The raw score, or the number of points gained from correct answers and lost from incorrect answers is also included. Students may also receive, for an additional fee, the Question and Answer Service, which provides the student’s answer, the correct answer to each question, and online resources explaining each question.
The corresponding percentile of each scaled score varies from test to test—for example, in 2003, a scaled score of 800 in both sections of the SAT Reasoning Test corresponded to a percentile of 99.9, while a scaled score of 800 in the SAT Physics Test corresponded to the 94th percentile. The differences in what scores mean with regard to percentiles are due to the content of the exam and the caliber of students choosing to take each exam. Subject Tests are subject to intensive study (often in the form of an AP, which is relatively more difficult), and only those who know they will perform well tend to take these tests, creating a skewed distribution of scores.
The percentiles that various SAT scores for college-bound seniors correspond to are summarized in the following chart:
|Percentile||Score, 1600 Scale
|Score, 2400 Scale
|* The percentile of the perfect score was 99.98 on the 2400 scale and 99.93 on the 1600 scale.|
|** 99+ means better than 99.5 percent of test takers.|
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