How is the New SAT Scored?

For nearly a century, colleges and universities have relied on the SAT to measure the abilities and readiness of applicants seeking admission to their programs. Theoretically, the almost four-hour test provided admissions officers with insight into a student’s strengths and weaknesses in the areas of Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. But few things remain the same over the course of almost 100 years, and the SAT is no exception.

In March 2016, the new SAT debuted a redesign in its exam format and scoring structure, significantly impacting the results and test-taking experience for students applying for college admissions in the 2017-2018 school year (and beyond). According to the College Board, the way the new SAT is scored will utilize more data to “provide deep insight into student readiness… [The data will] show how students tested in specific skill and knowledge areas.” With these changes on the horizon, you might be wondering exactly how the new SAT is scored, and what you can expect. The new SAT is scored on a scale of 1600, with several subscores and cross-test scores—let's take a look at how they all come together... 

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Why has the SAT changed?

In previous years, students who took the SAT were scored on their abilities in three core areas: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. These sections were also intended to offer insight into a student’s ability to problem-solve and to think critically. Under the old scoring system, test-takers were given a score for each section between 200 and 800, as well as an overall score between 600 and 2400. 

The problem, according to The College Board CEO and President David Coleman, was not a matter of scoring, but instead of what was being scored. For years, the SAT was designed as an evaluation separate from the material students were taught in the classroom—a divide that has become increasingly apparent in recent years. As a result, students often found the SAT content unfamiliar, forcing them to skip questions or to hazard a guess, rather than to apply knowledge gained through coursework.

In addition, a cultural shift within higher education has forced a reconsideration of the role of the SAT in the admissions process. Once a significant portion of the college application, standardized test scores, while still important, have begun to play a smaller role in the decision-making process. In fact, some schools have decided to make the SAT and other entrance exams like the ACT optional. (Unlike the SAT, the ACT utilizes more varied content, making it more attractive to students who excel in, among other areas, math and science.) 

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How will the new SAT’s format be different in 2016?

The scoring of the redesigned SAT is just one of several revisions. For example, in previous years, students’ critical reading skills were assessed by reading a passage and selecting answers that demonstrated how well they understood the section. At no time was the test-taker asked to explain or provide evidence for their answers; rather, they simply chose a multiple-choice answer and moved on to the next question. Given that the SAT is intended to measure college readiness, this question-and-answer format is antithetical to scholarly writing, which almost always requires students to cite sources and to explain their process. 

In order to make the exam more relevant and useful to admissions officers, the SAT has changed its format from Critical Reading and Writing to Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. On the redesigned exam, students will be asked to provide evidence that supports their answers.

Other aspects of the test that are receiving a makeover include those that have been criticized for being esoteric or too narrow in scope. In the vocabulary section, for instance, words like diaphanous were common on previous exams. These terms, however impressive they may be in a teenage lexicon, are obscure and unlikely to be useful in most college classes or on most assignments. On the 2016 redesign, test creators have replaced these words with those that are more commonly found in academia and the workplace. 

Similarly, the previous SAT placed a heavy emphasis on reading comprehension and various levels of math, but it included little from other areas of scholarship like the humanities and social sciences. This gave an advantage of sorts to those who excelled in these areas, while all but ignoring those individuals with strengths in other subjects. In order to combat this bias, the 2016 SAT will feature a reformatted reading and writing section that evaluates a student’s ability to analyze texts and information from science, the humanities, and social studies.

Among the changes that test-takers may find unappealing is the shift in the way in which certain questions are asked. On the old exam, questions were generally posed in a straightforward manner that required a single answer. On the redesigned SAT, some questions may contain several steps, or their answers may be linked to other questions. 

On a more positive note, the Essay portion of the exam has become optional. In previous years, students were given 25 minutes to write a persuasive essay. But at no time were they expected to provide evidence or to cite sources to support their position. As was the case with other sections on the SAT, this provided little insight into a student’s ability to craft an argument or to employ his or her analytical faculties.

In order to address concerns about the Essay portion of the exam, the College Board introduced a reformatted essay to the 2016 SAT. Rather than simply writing an unsupported essay, test-takers will first be asked to read a short piece of text. They will then be given 50 minutes to write a response, providing evidence and support for their viewpoint. According to the College Board, this new format is more in line with college-level assignments, and it will measure a student’s ability to read and comprehend the material, analyze the information, and respond appropriately.

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While many of these changes may seem small or in some ways technical, they have the potential to offer a standardized test that is nuanced and that measures students’ abilities more broadly across the disciplines.



How will the new SAT’s scoring structure be different in 2016?

The content and format changes coming to the redesigned SAT have considerable potential, but what is perhaps more pressing (and more useful to students, parents, and admissions officers) are the substantial alterations to the new SAT scoring.

One of the most significant aspects of these changes is not what is being added or restructured, but instead what is being abandoned. In previous years, test-takers who chose an incorrect answer (as opposed to leaving the question blank) were penalized ¼ of a point for each wrong response. This system was problematic because, in addition to punishing students for lacking knowledge they were never taught in a classroom, it misrepresented test-takers’ abilities by lowering their overall scores. On the redesigned SAT, incorrect answers will no longer be penalized, which should provide students and schools with a more accurate score. 

The major changes coming to the 2016 SAT will certainly make for a new standardized test experience, but for admissions officers and other decision-makers, it all comes down to the new SAT scoring system. While students will receive an overall score between 400 and 1600 (lowered from the previous scale of 600-2400), that score can now be broken down to provide a more nuanced picture of the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses.

  New SAT Score Breakdown
                                                                                   Total Score (400 - 1600)
                          Reading & Writing (200 - 800)                        Math (200 - 800)


                                                         New SAT Section Score Percentiles and Averages
   Reading & Writing (out of 800)  Math (out of 800)
 Top 5%  710  730
 Top 10%  670  680
 Top 20%  630  620
 Top 30%  600  590
 Top 40%  570  560
 Top 50% — average  540  530

The total score and the two section scores are familiar to anyone who has taken or is familiar with the SAT, but the other scores are worth looking at in more depth—starting with the cross-test score. 

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What is cross-test scoring on the new SAT?

The 2016 SAT still contains three core areas:

  • Critical reading
  • Math
  • Writing

However, because previous SAT iterations have provided little information on students’ abilities in science, the humanities, and social sciences, the cross-test scoring system has been designed to address that need. 

Within the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math sections, students will be asked to analyze a series of text excerpts from various sources, including those in the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. As has always been the case, you will be given an overall score for the section based on your number of correct answers, but you will also receive scores that are specific to history/social studies and science.  

If, for example, you have been asked to analyze and respond to a piece of text relating to the establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank in the United States, your answers to the subsequent questions can partially explain how well you understand the subject of American history. 

When combined, these two cross-test scores only total between 20 and 80 points, so they will not have a tremendous impact on your overall score. For those weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular college applicant, on the other hand, this information will be quite valuable, particularly when considered alongside your other application materials. For instance, if you state in your admissions essay that you have a strong interest in American history and hope to become a historian, your score in Analysis in History/Social Studies would help to indicate whether or not this is an academic area of strength for you, and whether you are ready to pursue this area at the college level. 

What are the three test scores on the new SAT?

Like the cross-test scores, the three test scores have been designed to provide a more in-depth analysis of how you did on each section of the SAT. Test scores can emphasize areas of strength or those portions that are in need of additional work. 

For instance, you may earn a 700 on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT, but this is a general glimpse of your abilities in this area. Given this information, the three test scores will provide admissions officers with the opportunity to look at Reading, Writing and Language, and Math as individual subjects for which you will be given between 10 and 40 points each. By doing so, admissions officers may find that, though you received a 700 on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, a large portion of that result was from your strong abilities as a critical reader, rather than your skills in writing. If you decide to retest, an SAT tutor could also use this data to select the right SAT practice tests for the most effective prep possible.

What are the new SAT subscores?

The last portion of the new SAT scoring structure involves the subscores. In total, there are seven subscores, and you will be awarded between 1 and 15 points in each for your grasp of certain aspects of academic work. This is perhaps the most complicated and seemingly ambiguous part of the scoring structure, but it is more straightforward than you might first think.

Essentially, these subscores are intended to assess the test-taker’s mastery of basic concepts across the redesigned SAT’s three content areas (Reading, Math, and Writing and Language). In Reading, as well as in Writing and Language, your understanding of words within specific contexts and your grasp of evidence will be assessed. For instance, if you read, “The relationship between the Native Americans and the colonists was a reductive dichotomy,” the SAT might consider whether you understand the meaning of “dichotomy” with regard to the relationship between two groups of people.

When it comes to your command of the English language, you will also be assessed on how well you express your ideas, and how well you understand standard English conventions. This includes items like grammar and sentence structure.

Finally, students will also be evaluated on their grasp of basic math concepts, particularly in algebra, problem-solving, data analysis, and early advanced math. For some individuals, this can be one of the more stressful aspects of the redesigned SAT, but what the SAT is truly gauging is the extent of your quantitative literacy. For example, if you are given an equation or a set of data, can you solve the related problem? In many cases, you will be given all the information that you need, so it is simply a matter of whether or not you are able to solve a problem using numbers, much like you would with words. 

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What about the new SAT Essay?

If you choose to register for and complete the SAT Essay, your score on this portion of the exam will be reported separately from the SAT as a whole. (In other words, it will not form part of the Writing and Language test.) The Essay is scored by two readers, who each evaluate your response to the prompt in three areas: reading, analysis, and writing. Did you understand the text provided in the prompt? Did you analyze it, and did you use textual evidence to support your analysis? Is your response clear and concise?

Each reader will assign you a score between 1 and 4 for these three areas. The scores for each area will then be added for three final scores between 2 and 8. For many students, the SAT Essay is a daunting prospect, but SAT Writing help—including SAT Writing tutors—can aid you in maximizing your score and impressing colleges.

What does this all mean for the new SAT?

With so many scores and subscores, you may be wondering, “What does this all mean for my final result?” In short, the changes to the format of the redesigned SAT (including its increased diversity of subjects) will be a more holistic evaluation of your skills in various academic areas.

In general, these changes are intended to keep the SAT relevant to the college application process by breaking down your score, and providing an in-depth look at the areas in which you excel and the areas in which you might need improvement. In simple terms, according to David Coleman, this is the College Board’s attempt to take responsibility for the SAT’s deficiencies. The new SAT scoring will provide admissions officers with an evaluation that, rather than demonstrating a student’s ability to memorize words and concepts, measures the test-taker’s comprehension and articulation of the material.

[RELATED: What is an Average SAT Score?]

How can you prepare for the new SAT scoring?

Although the most important changes to the redesigned SAT’s scoring will likely be more useful to admissions departments than to students, that does not mean that students cannot benefit from this information. In fact, understanding these changes gives you important insight into what admissions officers and the SAT consider a strong college candidate.

In terms of the big picture, you now know that these changes are intended to measure comprehension over memorization and retention. Thus, it behooves you, the student, to gain a better-developed understanding of the fundamental concepts behind what is being tested. For instance, rather than simply completing a sentence or blindly grasping for the meaning of a vocabulary word, the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section will force you to gauge a concept, use evidence from the passage to support your answer, and clearly and concisely articulate your ideas. (You can find more information about these fundamental concepts in our free SAT prep book.)

When it comes to studying for the SAT, its subscores might provide you with the best clues as to how to earn the highest score possible on the SAT. While the maximum score you can receive on this portion is low (just 15), it tells you what the section is looking for from you. When it comes to Reading, do you understand the evidence being presented? When it comes to Math, can you demonstrate a fundamental understanding of algebraic concepts?

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Whatever SAT studying route you ultimately decide to take, you are now armed with insight into what the College Board and admissions officers are looking for. As a result, you can take a more targeted approach to leveraging your strengths, improving your weaknesses, and earning the best possible score on the redesigned SAT. 


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