PSAT scores vs. SAT scores

Complementary Creative Commons Casio Calculator by Boaz Arad via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The new SAT debut is around the corner! On March 5th, the official test will be given for the first time. But it’ll seem awfully familiar to juniors who took the new PSAT/NMSQT in October. The SAT and PSAT/NMSQT are the two main tests in the “SAT Suite of Assessments”:

PSAT 8/9
PSAT 10
PSAT/NMSQT
SAT

Since the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT are practically the same test, and since PSAT/NMSQT is a rather unwieldy acronym, the rest of this article will just use “PSAT” to refer to both the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT.

The SAT and PSAT tests are very similar in content and structure. The main differences are:

1. The SAT is slightly longer: 3 hours compared to 2 hours and 45 minutes for the PSAT.
2. The SAT has an optional essay, which will bring the total test time to 3 hours and 50 minutes.
3. The SAT is supposed to be slightly more difficult than the PSAT.
4. The SAT is on a 400-1600 scale, whereas the PSAT is on a 320-1520 scale.

That last one is pretty confusing, especially considering statements like this from the College Board website:

The redesigned SAT Suite uses a common score scale, providing consistent feedback across assessments to help educators and students monitor growth across grades and to identify areas in need of improvement.

How can the SAT and PSAT use a common score scale when the highest score on the SAT is a 1600 but on the PSAT it’s only 1520?

The answer, according to a College Board packet is that the tests are “vertically equated.”

If that’s a good enough explanation for you, maybe you should work for the College Board!

Here’s a better explanation. According to that same packet, the score you get on the PSAT is the score you would likely have gotten had you taken the SAT on the same day. For example, if you got a perfect score of 1520 on the PSAT, you would probably have gotten a (less than perfect) score of 1520 had you instead taken the SAT because the SAT is a little bit harder.

The reason the College Board does it this way is a little easier to understand when you consider the first test in the “Suite of Assessments,” the PSAT 8/9. This test will be given to 8th graders. Even the smartest kid in 8th grade probably hasn’t learned much about radians, for example. That kid might get a perfect score on his PSAT 8/9, but if he took the SAT, he’d probably miss that one question about radians and get a lower score. If the PSAT 8/9 was on the same 1600 point scale as the SAT, that kid might get his score report and say, “Only 1440 out of 1600? But I’m the smartest kid in 8th grade!” (As it happens, 1440 is a perfect score on the PSAT 8/9.)

Presumably the verbal questions also get progressively more difficult as we move from PSAT 8/9 to PSAT to SAT. However, the College Board hasn’t released a PSAT 8/9 to the public. Comparing the one PSAT they have released to the four SATs in the Official SAT Study Guide, I can’t tell a whole lot of difference, but presumably the College Board has assigned difficulty levels to questions based on focus groups (test students). Those extra 80 points on the SAT come from the extra questions that were too difficult for the PSAT.

If you really want to, you can read all about the SAT Suite of Assessments vertical score scale here.

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