Understanding the SAT Scoring System

Motives for the New SAT Scoring System

An understanding of the 2016 SAT scoring system begins with an assessment of the reasons for the College Board's introduction of a new set of evaluation criteria. Surveys of college admissions officials indicated that the old SAT did not provide enough useful information about college applicants. The SAT that was offered between 2005 and early 2016 gave only section scores for critical reading, writing, and math. Admissions officers complained that these scores were not specific enough with regard to applicant strengths and weaknesses, and did not assist individual university departments in their screening of students by desired major. Competition with the ACT, the other major undergraduate admissions test, was also undoubtedly a motive behind the scoring changes to the SAT. With its science section, the ACT constituted a broader assessment than the old SAT, which did not evaluate scientific knowledge or skills per se. Popular criticism of the SAT was perhaps the most significant force behind the changes to the test. SAT revisions, including to how the test is scored, are the College Board's responses to critics who claimed that the old SAT was narrowly focused, tested many skills with little relevance to post-secondary study, and favored students from wealthier backgrounds.

Benefits of Test Scores and Subscores

The 2016 SAT scoring system is an improvement in that it gives a much greater amount of information to both students and colleges. Section scores for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math are complemented by test scores and subscores that assess specific skills in these broad areas. Students receive test scores for each of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math tests. Included on the Writing and Language Test are two subscores for Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions that attempt to represent student abilities in terms of writing substance and knowledge of standard academic English. The Command of Evidence and Words in Context subscores relate to questions on both the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test. These subscores ostensibly show student ability and potential in the areas of inferring, interpreting, and using evidence as well as word choice and meaning in terms of the art of rhetoric. The 2016 SAT uses subscores to evaluate specific skills on the Math Test, including knowledge of algebra, solving problems and analyzing data, and familiarity with more advanced mathematics (these three subscores are entitled Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math).

Benefits of Cross-Test Scores and Essay Scores

The new SAT scoring system also includes cross-test scores that attempt to convey information about student analytical potential in several disciplines. These cross-test scores are Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science. As the term implies, cross-test scores are built from questions on all three of the SAT's tests. Specific subject-matter knowledge is not required; the focus is on the ability to analyze information given with SAT questions. The SAT essay has its own scoring system. Two independent scorers read each essay and provide individual scores for Reading, Writing, and Analysis. Essay scores are the sum of each scorer's assessment, and using two scorers is thought to control for scorer bias. The essay score is independent of student performance on other sections of the SAT.

Supporting Evidence for Changes to Scoring Practice

One of the most important scoring changes to the 2016 SAT is the discontinuation of the penalty for guessing. The old SAT deducted points for incorrect answers, and research showed that this practice discouraged many test-takers from using logic and process of elimination to offer the most plausible answer choices. The development of reasoning skills is a worthwhile educational goal in and of itself, and a shift to a scoring system based exclusively on correct answers gives students an incentive to acquire these skills and to put forth their best effort while taking the test. Another major change concerns the number of correct answer choices. The recently discontinued SAT gave five possible answers per multiple-choice question, while the new SAT gives only four. College Board research indicated that the assessment value of the fifth answer choice was at best marginal and at worst counterproductive. The enhanced scoring provided by the new SAT aligns with an increasingly influential view among educational researchers. This view holds that literacy development should be as just as concerned with acquiring subject-specific vocabulary as it is with more generalized reading skills. The new SAT's subscores and cross-test scores can be seen as a reflection of this ideological and pedagogical principle. The idea is to promote basic comprehension of the lexicon of many different subject areas, which produces students better prepared for postsecondary study in all fields. Surveys have shown that college professors consider advance knowledge of introductory-level terminology to be strongly associated with success in college courses.