Monday, March 7, 2011

If You Get an 800 on an SAT Unit, Does That Mean It Was Perfect? No.

I finally watched "The Social Network" yesterday after hearing countless good things about the film.

I'd been worried that it would be sort of boring, and dark (as in low lighting of scenes--I hate that, for some reason; it makes me tense), with lots of unrealistically clever chatter reminiscent of "The West Wing," and no real action of consequence.

See here for snippets of trailers and stills:

I was basically right about the film, although I actually did enjoy some of the unrealistically clever chatter...particularly when the Zuckerberg character fought back (in depositions) against the Winklevoss twins and their stodgy lawyer. 

I still don't see why the Winklevii deserved a massive settlement; I really don't. But hey--their daddy had a firm lawyer on retainer, and easy access to such tends to make people more litigious.

Still, I am glad I saw "The Social Network,"  if only to be able now to debunk the myth of the "perfect" SAT score.

In the opening scene, Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend (played by the adorable Rooney Mara) asks him if it's really true that his 800s on the SAT unit sections meant he got no questions wrong.

The Zuckerberg character demurs for a while, but when he realizes that the gf thinks he's an ass and wants nothing more to do with him, he hastily mutters something like, "Yes, I got nothing wrong."

BZZZT! Incorrect.

The SAT scoring system is absurdly complicated, but I will do my best to explain it a bit.

  • An 800 on any unit of the SAT (whether it is Math, Verbal or Writing) means that the student who earned this score was generally around the top 1% of test-takers in that particular pool. Yet, as a recent commentator noted, a student must have a 99.7% to get an 800 in Writing, and a bit higher for Critical Reading, while some SAT subject tests award 800s for scores around 92% or even lower (as in Math). T
  • Experimental sections are ALWAYS in the mix somewhere. Those are not counted.
  • The SAT is also curved. (The curving equations are quite complex; I will spare you the actual algorithm, which varies according to the "pool" of test-takers.)
  • There are "raw scores" earned which later translate into the scores we know and love (or loathe), as in a raw score of 74 questions answered correctly out of 78=780. Similarly, a raw score of, say, 75 out of 78 could earn the test-taker an 800.
  • More people get 800s in Math, so you must actually be perfect to get a Math 800 (the competition is stiffer).

All of this sounds niggling, but even the slight variations make a difference.

Questions left blank do not result in deductions of any kind (neither do blanks earn students any points).

Fair? Hah. Depends who is asking.

Complicated? Yes.

I am just about to take the SAT again. All serious teachers of SAT prep take the exam regularly (I am a serious SAT/ACT tutor. Feel free to contact me if you or your students need help.)

So now the question is: what score did I get last time? What do I think I'll get this time?

Let me put it this way: Zuckerberg and I have something in common, but I usually tell people I got a 780, just to be nice.

I know what I'm doing, and I know how to take this exam. I know its tricks; I don't let myself get trapped by it.  Still, my score can vary.

I know that June, for me, is an especially lovely time for 800s...and January can be colder. Some people will disagree with me on this. Whatever. People love to argue with me that scores are not curved, but unless you have some concrete proof--and I actually think they must be curved, because it's not all that fair to judge a kid from Mississippi against a kid from Massachusetts, given the differences in schools. Argue with me again if you want (or don't).

I will give you an example of how scores fluctuate: a recent test I took seemed pretty hard to me (and I am used to the exam). I worried that I didn't do that well, but I got an 800 on Critical Reading with one wrong. Another recent Writing test seemed much easier. Maybe I did not take it seriously enough (I made some stupid errors--little things I just didn't see): I got a 760, and I was kicking myself. How does that happen? The point is: each exam is different, as is a student's physical response to the exam. Performance constantly varies.

My parting words today will be these: don't wait until the last minute to get ready for the SAT. 

I have students right now who are preparing YEARS in advance; I have students preparing one week in advance.

Which students have the better chance of success? That's a pretty easy question to answer.

More practice=more success.

Bonne chance.  Read as much as possible. Study tons of vocabulary and don't believe the hype.


  1. This is a must read for my son, thank you.

  2. You're welcome, @Amii. I sort of hate to add fuel to the standardized test fire, but these exams are a crucial part of most college applications. It is certainly the case that concentrated test prep makes a real difference. I would ideally prefer the SAT or ACT to be more of an IQ test, as it was in the older days.


  3. Way back in the early part of the millennium when I took my PSATs, the scores came back with the number of questions you got wrong, and I apparently did answer every question on the scored verbal sections correctly. (I would consistently get one question wrong on the math part, though, in my practice exams, and that held up on the PSAT.) However, when I took my SATs the next year and got a 790 in math, people told me that although you could miss a few questions on the verbal and still get an 800, enough people did well enough on the math that one question wrong meant a 790 (in a scored section) instead of an 800.

    My mother was never really happy with my scores. When I sat for the January test and got a 1570, she made me retake it. She wasn't thrilled the 1590 I got the second time but thankfully didn't make me do it yet again.

  4. Yes, scores can fluctuate according to the pool of fellow test-takers. That drives students crazy (their parents probably more so). I myself can fluctuate by 30 or so points, even though I am generally consistent.



  5. I'd love to hear more about the curve algorithm.

  6. I can't give you the precise algorithm, because it changes from test to test, but here's a bit of an explanation of how/why the raw scores get "translated" after being wrung through an equation:

    "Each raw score is converted to a scaled score using a process called equating. Equating uses statistics and analysis to ensure that scores are not affected by factors such as different forms of the test and different levels of ability of students taking the test."

    Read more: About the SAT Scoring System |

  7. Thank you. So it's basically a sliding scale too.

    Which means that ultimately the score is worthless.

  8. To a certain extent. maybe, but I don't agree that it is utterly worthless. It does show general skill on some level...but it also shows preparation. The old SAT from the 1970s was more of an IQ test. I think that our society, being all free enterprise-y, has enabled a vast business to flourish that gives out hints and secrets and ensures that a plutocracy reigns...but that's an argument for another day. The scores won't be worthless until colleges (such as my own) stop looking at them.



  9. Hi im a senior in high school and im gonna be taking my SATs for the second time this November and i was just wondering if you have any advice for me to improve my scores because the first time i took it i got a terrible score( 1480) and the school im applying to has an average score of about 1800-2100. Please help I have the SAT blue book and have also really started to read a ton of books( The Great Gatsby, War Of The Worlds, etc) and also studying SAT vocabs to try to really see a major jump in my score.

    I would love to hear back. my email is

  10. I e-mailed you, Jeffrey. It's hard for me to give you precise advice, because 1) I don't know if you have an average of less than 500 on the three sections, or if you have a higher score in one area and lower in the others. 2) I also don't know if you finished the exam sections. This can make a real difference, and if that is the case, then *time management* would have to be your primary focus now. That said, I can only advise you to start skipping every question you don't know. This sounds counter-intuitive, but you will actually NOT lose points for skipped questions (you just won't earn any). Conversely, you will lose either 1/4 or 1/3 pt for each incorrect answer, and this adds up super fast. You are on the right track with vocabulary study, but staring at flashcards isn't going to teach you these words. You need to read more, make your own cards (copy the cards over again--seriously. This is a study techqnique), and come up with quick and easy ways to remember these words. Vocabulary is a HUGE part of the SAT, and if you are lacking the vocab (which usually comes from reading), then your score will suffer. Good luck, EC

  11. Hi!
    I'm a senior in high school. I'm going to think to retake the SAT on May. Because I expect to get an 800 on Math, so I may have a chance to have a scholarship on math field (the problem is just money for college :P).I got 590 on Math section on my first SAT. Do you have any advises or any recommends for me to get a better score?

    I would love to hear back. My email is

    Ly Bui

  12. Hi--

    My advice is to practice and learn the strategy behind the questions. Have you had any instruction in this? For the writing section, you need to know what you're being tested on (about 10-12 specific grammatical issues). You also need to practice the essay in order to do a good job on the five areas they actually look at. As for critical reading, you can study vocab (and should), but success on the Verbal section usually comes down to being a well read person.

    Good luck!


  13. An 800 does not necessarily mean that the test taker scored in the top percentile. On the SAT reasoning test, as far as I know, the cutoff for 800 has always lied within the top percentile (Writing is usually around 99.7th, Reading around 99.3rd, and Math somewhere around 99.1st) but those cutoffs are decided long before the test is taken and are not anchored to percentiles. They are based on the notion of normalization in which the College Board attempts to keep scores on tests of varying difficulty comparable between different groups of test-takers. On SAT subject tests the cutoff for 800 varies wildly. On the MATH II subject test, the cutoff for 800 is usually around the 92nd percentile. In some subjects it's below the 75th

  14. SAT-maths is not a good judge of mathematical ability beyond the 97th percentile.
    See: The Gender Gap in Secondary School Mathematics at High Achievement Levels

    Glenn Ellison and Ashley Swanson

  15. June session is an easy time to get 800s...what is the reasoning behind this? Is it because everyone takes the June session SAT, whereas only "hardcore" students take the Jan SAT? I just took the June SAT, and I really thought that I kind of got nervous towards the end...but I really hope I would get a high score this time cos I really love the environment of my dream school..

  16. The reasoning is that fewer students take the June SAT, so the competition (as a test-taker, you are always compared to people in your area) is lighter.

    Good luck,



  18. Does anyone ever know if the SAT has been graded incorrectly? I am so certain that I did so exceptionally well in the math (perfect or one or two wrong) and I got a 590???? Has anyone received a new score by paying the $55 and having them hand grade it? A full ride scholarship is at stake here.

  19. Maybe you messed up the answer sheet? What had you gotten before?

  20. Um...I missed only two questions out of 54 on the math, which means that I got about 96% correct without the guessing penalty. My score? 750. That doesn't add up with what you said here. It looks as if you have to get 100% on the math for an 800.

  21. I did say that you need to get all correct on Math in order to get an 800. I put that in bold. Best, EC

  22. I have around 50days for my sat test. In my practice tests im scoring 740in math, 560 in cr and 540 in writing. My aim is to score above 2000 in the sat's how should I prepare for it

  23. I think you need to study the grammar basics that are tested in Writing--that's the easiest section to score well in. Also practice Critical Reading, especially vocabulary. Read as much as possible and SKIP questions that you cannot answer; it is better to leave an answer blank than get it wrong (don't skip more than a few per section, but remember that a skipped question doesn't cost you points; it just doesn't earn you any. Wrong answers cost you).

  24. Hi!
    I'm giving SAT 1 on November 8th. I consistently get above 750 in the two english sections, but my math varies from 680-730, and I desperately need to get it above 750. Any advice?