There are only a few times in your life when you’ll look at test scores and see a number like 1200 or 2000. Wait, wait—there’s only one time, really: that’s the SAT. Ninety-nine percent of the tests you take are scored as a fraction or a percentage, so what gives? What’s the point of putting SAT scores in this bizarro range of 600 to 2400?
There are a few reasons:
1. The Wrong Answer Penalty: The SAT isn’t scored just by counting how many correct answers you got; your incorrect answers also count to your total score. That’s right—you’re punished for your mistakes. In theory, it’s better to leave an answer blank than it is to get it wrong. In practice, that ends up not really being the case; you’ll definitely want to guess if you’re stumped on the test, especially if you can rule out one of the wrong answer choices.
Anyway, the system is pretty simple. A wrong answer is worth -¼ of a right answer. So if you get 1 question right, then 4 wrong, the correct answer is completely canceled out. Now, imagine you had a really hard time on the test and got more than four times as many incorrect answers as you did correct answers. That would lead to a negative score, right? But that’s nonsense. Test scores don’t go negative. So the raw score, calculated by the number of correct and incorrect answers you got, has to be converted into a different scale, a scale that is only positive.
2. Standardization: If you take the SAT in May, then again in October, there’s a chance you’ll see harder questions on one test or the other. It’s not a pattern, though—it’s not as though SAT Math is always harder in the spring (that’s a common myth, but it is just a myth). Instead, there are just normal variations in the test difficulty. It’s pretty much impossible to create two tests with the exact same difficulty level. So if you answer 70% of the questions correctly on SAT critical reading one month, but only 65% correctly four months later, it’s likely the second test was just a bit harder by chance. To deal with that, the College Board, who makes the SAT, scales scores according to how hard the test was—you could end up with the exact same score on the 200 to 800 scale for that section from both test dates.
3. Distinction: This is the biggest reason, really. A high score on your algebra final might be a 95% or even 100%. The average score in the class might be closer to 80%. But if the SAT were on a 1 to 100 scale, the average score would be more like 50 (the average SAT score is near 1500, which is halfway between the minimum 600 and the maximum 2400). It would give the wrong impression of how well you actually did on the test, because people would immediately associate that 50 with a 50%, a failing grade, which an average SAT score absolutely is not.
So taking the score out of the 1 to 100 scale is necessary. But why 600 to 2400? The truth is that it’s pretty arbitrary. If you’ve taken or studied the ACT, you know that test is scored on a scale of 1 to 36. The PSAT, meanwhile, is from 60 to 240. The GRE is scored from 260 to 340, the LSAT from 120 to 180, and the TOEFL paper test from 310 to 677 (just to screw with people, I’m sure). Any standardized test has to pick a range of numbers to use. Test makers don’t want the scores of their test to be easily confused with the scores of another test, so they choose number ranges that don’t look like those of other tests’.
Get calibrated: If you’re not sure how to read your score, then forget about the actual number: just look at the percentiles. That shows you what percentage of people you scored higher than. If you’re in the 60th percentile, for instance, you scored higher than 60% of the other SAT takers. That gives a much better picture of where you stand and exactly how good your score is.