Standardized College Entrance Testing: Essential Terms

As you may know, SC Test Prep is "Blogging Through the Admission Cycle" with the Spartanburg Community Indicators Project, offering timely advice for each step of the process from the college search to financial aid offers. With those posts available on both organizations' websites, we're devoting our attention to an increasingly important topic within higher education: standardized testing.

Over the next several months we will offer information about the ACT and SAT including:

  • The ongoing or upcoming changes being made to each test, especially the radically redesigned SAT

  • Which test is right for you / your student

  • The growing movement towards test-optional admissions and when and how to take advantage of that opportunity

  • Specific issues and concerns to be aware of regarding standardized testing

Before we begin, it is helpful to have a glossary of sorts to ensure that our upcoming conversations are as clear, concise and helpful as possible. The following terms and definitions are necessary for you or your student to understand the structure of the ACT and SAT as well as how they are scored.

Subject Areas:

Currently, the SAT is divided into 3 distinct subject areas: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing which includes the mandatory essay. Beginning in March 2016, these SAT subject areas will shift slightly to Reading, Math, and Language and Writing. On the redesigned test, the essay will become optional and will no longer be included as part of the Language and Writing subject area.

These changes will bring the SAT into closer alignment with the ACT which is divided into 4 subject areas: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science, with an optional, separate essay offered as well.

Raw Score:

On both the SAT and ACT, a student's raw score is calculated first. This is essentially a sum of the number of correct answers from each subject area with 1 point given for each right answer. The current SAT then deducts ¼ of a point for each incorrect answer, meaning that a student can actually lower their raw score through too many wrong answers.

The new SAT will not include this "guessing" penalty, again bringing it into closer alignment with the ACT which doesn't deduct for incorrect answers. Beginning March 2016, the raw score on both tests will equal the total number of right answers selected.

Norm-referenced Test:

Norm-referenced testing means that students are not evaluated on the basis of their own performance, but on how well that performance compares to their peers. Each student's raw score is placed on a bell curve, then the corresponding percentile for each score is determined. Each percentile is then assigned a scaled score. The ACT and the current and future versions of the SAT are norm-referenced.

Scaled Score:

On the current SAT, scaled scores are reported using a 200-800 point range for each subject area for a maximum point total of 2400. The new SAT will combine the Reading and Language and Writing scaled scores, returning the scaled points available to 1600, the maximum total possible prior to the addition of the Writing subject area in 2005.

The ACT reports scaled scores using a 1-36 point scale for each subject area. Unlike the SAT, it does not combine the totals, instead averaging them for a composite score.

Note: Identical raw scores can result in different scaled results, depending on the bell curve for that particular test. It is possible for an increase in raw score to have no effect or a negative effect on a student's scaled score.

Combined/Composite Score:

This is the final score reported to colleges and universities. As described above on the SAT, both present and future, this is a total of the various subject areas' scaled scores while on the ACT it is an average of those same scaled scores.

Next time: The upcoming changes to the SAT will affect students and their total combined scores. We'll talk about the details.