# Interpreting and Using SAT Scores

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1 Interpreting and Using SAT Scores Evaluating Student Performance Use the tables in this section to compare a student s performance on SAT Program tests with the performance of groups of students. These tables can give you a better idea of what a student s scores and percentile ranks mean by showing who else took the test and how well they did. Information on subgroup performance (such as gender or ethnic groups) can be found in the Education Professionals section at SAT National Percentile Ranks These tables compare the performance of groups of students who took the SAT. The percentile ranks in these tables are based on the most recent scores earned by high school students who are members of the 2004 graduating class and took the SAT any time during high school. The percentile ranks in the table below can be used for the new SAT critical reading and math sections, whereas the writing percentiles for the new SAT will be available beginning with the fall 2006 administrations. Verbal and Math Percentile Ranks Use this table to see how a student s verbal and math scores compare with those of college-bound seniors. The percentile ranks shown are used on SAT score reports in For example, a score of 570 would fall in the 69th percentile for the verbal section and the 66th percentile for the math section. This means that a student who earned a verbal score of 570 did better than 69 percent of students who took the test. Likewise, a student who earned a math score of 570 did better than 66 percent of students who took the test. SAT Verbal and Math Percentile Ranks Score V M Score V M Mean SD Interpreting and Using SAT Scores

2 Composite (V+M) Percentile Ranks Use this table to see how a student s composite SAT score (verbal plus math) compares with the scores earned by college-bound seniors. Using the previous example, a student who earned a 570 in both verbal and math would have a composite score of 1140, for a percentile rank of 69. This means that the student s composite score is higher than that of 69 percent of students who took the test. SAT Composite (V+M) Percentile Ranks Score Percentile Score Percentile Score Percentile Score Percentile TIP The percentile rank shows a student s scores in relation to the scores of other students planning to attend college. Students with a low percentile rank can still be admitted to many colleges Mean 1026 SD 210 Interpreting and Using SAT Scores 29

3 Effects of Repeating the SAT Many students (45 percent) test once, and about 83 percent test either once or twice. The most common pattern is a combination of spring junior-year and fall senior-year testing. However, some students test only in their junior year, and some test only in their senior year. The table that follows shows what effect repeating the SAT has on students scores. Verbal Percentage of Students with Senior Year Score Gain or Loss Average of Junior Year -140 & -110 to -80 to -50 to -20 to -10 to +20 to +50 to +80 to +110 to +140 & Senior Year Scores below above Score Math Points to Note The left-hand column groups juniors by score ranges. Columns to the right show the percentage of students who gain or lose points when they test again as seniors. The far right column shows a senior-year mean for each original group of juniors. Overall, 55 percent of juniors taking the test improve their scores as seniors, 35 percent have score decreases, and 10 percent see no change. On average, juniors repeating the SAT as seniors improve their verbal scores by about 14 points and their math scores by about 14 points. About 1 in 25 gains 100 or more points on verbal or math, and about 1 in 100 loses 100 or more points. TIP Students planning to test again should work to improve their academic skills. A student who tested while ill or who was not at peak during the test should consider taking the test again. Getting a lower score won t negate the original (higher) score. Most colleges tend to look at the higher score rather than the lower score. 30 Interpreting and Using SAT Scores

4 Comparing Group Scores on the SAT Use this table to determine the margin of error in estimating the mean difference in true scores between two groups of students. The computed difference between the group means, plus or minus the margin of error, gives the range of possible differences between the true score means for the two groups. Average Margin Average Margin Average Margin Group Size of Error Group Size of Error Group Size of Error How to Use This Table Use this table when comparing mean scores of similar groups (on either Math or Verbal, but not M+V). First, compute the difference in the observed mean scores for the two groups being compared. Next, determine the average size of the two groups for which you are comparing scores, and locate that value in the column labeled Average Group Size. Locate the number to the right of the group size, in the column marked Margin of Error. This number shows how much we can expect the computed difference in mean observed scores to differ from the actual difference in mean true scores for two groups. Use this number to create an error band around the computed difference in means. For example, if each of the groups being compared has 750 people in it, then the margin of error (from the table) is 3. So, if the observed mean difference between the groups is 12, then we would expect the true mean difference to be somewhere between 9 and 15 (12 ± 3). Points to Note Use this table when information is available on all (or almost all) of the people in the groups to be compared. If data are available on only a small sample from each group, then the margin of error can be much larger than what is indicated by the table. This table is most appropriate for comparing groups of approximately equal size. If the larger group is more than three times the size of the smaller group, it may be advisable to look up the smaller group size instead of the average group size in the table to get a more conservative estimate of the margin of error. A score range obtained using the above table gives an idea of how large or small the true score difference between two groups might be. No statistical method can tell whether such a difference is important. Such an interpretation is best made in the context of the actual situation under consideration (for example, what is known about the groups being compared; what would be the practical effect of a difference as large as the estimated one). The difference between the two group means is statistically significant if the range computed above does not include a value of zero. However, a statistically significant difference is not necessarily meaningful or important. Interpreting and Using SAT Scores 31

5 SAT One-Year Mean Changes This table shows the percentage of high schools where verbal and math mean scores fluctuate from one year to the next. Verbal Mean Schools Schools Schools Change with with with of at All Least Test-Takers Test-Takers Test-Takers Schools 10 60% 44% 26% 48% 20 30% 12% 3% 17% 30 12% 3% 1% 6% 40 3% 1% 0% 1% 50 1% 0% 0% 0% Math Mean Schools Schools Schools Change with with with of at All Least Test-Takers Test-Takers Test-Takers Schools 10 60% 46% 28% 49% 20 30% 13% 4% 18% 30 12% 3% 1% 6% 40 4% 1% 0% 2% 50 1% 0% 0% 0% Year-to-year changes in average verbal and math scores are more likely to occur in TIP schools with a small number of test-takers. Many changes are not statistically significant. In general, about half of all schools experience changes of at least 10 points in their school means each year. In schools with a small number of SAT test-takers, the high or low scores of just a few students can affect the school s average scores. 32 Interpreting and Using SAT Scores

6 Subject Test Percentile Ranks Use the table that follows to see how a student s performance on a Subject Test compares with that of other students who took the same test. These percentile rankings appear on score reports for the test administrations. Percentile ranks should not be compared across Subject Tests because different groups of students with varying skills and abilities take different Subject Tests. For instance, some Subject Tests tend to have many test-takers who excel in that subject. That means that a ranking that seems mediocre may in fact be very good. For example, students who take the Math Level 2 Test often have taken several higher-level math courses, such as precalculus or calculus, while students who take Math Level 1 have a much more varied math background. A score of, say, 610 will likely result in a higher percentile rank for Math 1 than for Math 2, indicating that a greater percentage of students scored higher on the Math Level 2 Test. A student should not expect to get as high a percentile ranking on the Math 2 Test as on the Math 1 for an identical scaled score. Similarly, the Language Tests include scores from students who are native speakers and would be expected to score high. Consequently, the percentile rankings for the scores on these tests tend to be lower than for other tests. See the Education Professionals section at for a table that excludes scores of native speakers and those students who had additional language exposure or experience outside of high school. Interpreting and Using SAT Scores 33

7 Subject Test Percentile Ranks English History and Math Science Social Studies Score Writing Literature U.S. World Math Math Ecological Molecular Chemistry Physics History History Level 1 Level 2 Biology Biology Number 232,869 53,709 79,937 15, ,183 88,437 33,725 35,460 52,788 26,971 Mean SD SEM SED Interpreting and Using SAT Scores

8 Languages Listening Languages Reading Chinese French German Japanese Korean Spanish French German Modern Italian Latin Spanish Score Hebrew ,917 2, ,303 2,878 5,428 9, ,922 25,442 Number Mean SD SEM SED Interpreting and Using SAT Scores 35

9 SAT ACT Score Comparisons This table compares the combined verbal and math scores on the SAT with composite scores on the ACT Assessment, and vice versa. Points to Note SAT to ACT ACT to SAT ACT ACT SAT Score Composite Composite SAT Score V+M Score Score V+M Equivalent scores are those with the same percentile ranks for a common group of test-takers. Data in this table are based on 103,525 test-takers who took both the SAT and the ACT between October 1994 and December SAT scores do not cover the full range of the ACT scale due to differences in how percentiles are distributed at the bottom of the two scales. Although the new SAT will have significant changes that will more closely align the test with current instructional practices, the new SAT field trial research has conclusively demonstrated that scores on the new critical reading section will be comparable to scores on the current verbal section, and scores on the new math section will be comparable to scores on the current math section. Therefore, current concordance tables can still be used to compare SAT and ACT scores. 36 Interpreting and Using SAT Scores

11 1. Know enough about tests and test data to ensure that their proper uses and limitations are understood and applied. Comment: Understand exactly what the SAT measures by reading Taking the SAT Reasoning Test, Taking the SAT Subject Tests, and other printed material. There is considerable information about all of the tests in the SAT Program at In addition, users should be familiar with these basic testing and measurement principles: mean, median, and mode percentiles standard error of measurement (SEM) standard error of the difference (SED) reliability raw scores, scaled scores, and equating validity correlation and correlation coefficient At there is a section on statistical definitions as well as tables with percentiles and other data about tests in the SAT Program. The College Board offers workshops and sessions at meetings of many different professional organizations to help train new staff and others who use SAT data. 2. Use SAT scores in conjunction with other indicators, such as the secondary school record (grades and courses), interviews, personal statements, writing samples, portfolios, recommendations, etc., in evaluating the applicant s admissibility at a particular institution. Comment: Research shows that the combination of test scores and the student s high school record (generally GPA or class rank) predicts college success better than either test scores or high school information alone. This is only one reason why admissions decisions should be made on a combination of factors rather than a single measure. Each student has many different strengths and unique characteristics; no one measure can capture all of those elements. In addition, SAT scores are neither immutable nor absolute measures of a student s ability or achievement. As with all tests, there is measurement error in SAT scores and, over time, a student s skills and achievements change. No matter how well the SAT predicts a student s ultimate performance in college, admissions is often related to more than simply identifying the students who will get high grades in college. Colleges may also wish to enroll students who have other important characteristics that might be more evident through the other criteria outlined in this guideline. Perhaps most importantly, many institutions want to view student s SAT scores in relation to their own particular backgrounds. If a student has attended a school with relatively few resources or if the student s family does not speak English at home, one might expect lower SAT scores than for a student who has attended a rigorous secondary school and comes from a highly English literate family situation. 3. View admissions test scores as contemporary and approximate indicators rather than as fixed and exact measures of a student s preparation for college-level work. Comment: SAT scores are a snapshot in time. Both the SAT and the Subject Tests measure developed and acquired skills. Most individuals are constantly learning (and sometimes forgetting) both in and out of school. When students take an SAT more than once, they often do not receive exactly the same score. This is partly because of the measurement error that is characteristic of all assessments. 38 Interpreting and Using SAT Scores

14 The frequency of validating admissions criteria depends on each institution s unique situation. If there has been relatively little change in the applicant pool and in the academic expectations of enrolled students, formal validity studies can be conducted infrequently. If, however, there are changes in the characteristics of applicants or if there have been changes at the institution (for example, new freshman-year course requirements), validity studies should be conducted to verify the effectiveness of admissions factors. Validity studies might also be conducted if the faculty has noticed a change in the student body or if the institution is contemplating changes in admissions requirements. 8. Maintain adequate procedures for protecting the confidentiality of test scores and other admissions data. Comment: Admissions offices should periodically audit their operations from a security perspective, tracing the path of SAT scores and other application materials from the time and place of receipt to their final destination (registrar s office, temporary or permanent records retention, or destruction). Do only those individuals who need to know this information have access? Are there safeguards to be sure that unauthorized individuals are not able to gain access to confidential records? Have all authorized individuals been trained about how to treat confidential information? 9. When introducing or revising admissions policies, allow sufficient lead time and provide adequate notice to schools and students so that they can take the new policies into account when planning school programs and curricular offerings and preparing for admissions tests and other requirements. Comment: Because students and schools want to do whatever possible to meet an institution s expectations, they need sufficient lead time to make plans for curricular changes or other modifications to reflect any modifications in an institution s requirements. Many changes in a school s program cannot be made quickly, and often curricular modifications need to be introduced in middle school or the first year of high school. Interpreting and Using SAT Scores 41

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