kitchen table math, the sequel: SAT - For those still interested

Monday, December 12, 2011

SAT - For those still interested

This is something I meant to post before. It's the relationship between the raw score and the SAT score for the May 2011 SAT. It demonstrates how much your SAT score will drop with each error.

54 - 800 No errors or skipped problems.
53 - 790 One strike (error).
52 - 760 Two strikes.
51 - 740 You can’t get here for most cases. You round down.
50 - 720 Three strikes - this error drops you 40 points.
49 - 710
48 - 700
47 - 680

For the Student-Produced Response section, you don't get the extra quarter point penalty for a wrong answer and the rounding jump is delayed. Skipped problems will also cause a delay in the rounding jump. However, at some points the roundings kick in. It's a real killer in the 700 range.


Anonymous said...

PSAT is even worse, one error in "Writing Skills" drops you from 80 to 75.

These tests are terrible at distinguishing students at the high end, which makes the use of the PSAT as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test almost criminal.

SteveH said...

All tests are calibrated differently. A one error drop to 75 would be pretty bad.

On the practice PSAT handed out to my sophomore son in September (it was the Oct 14, 2009 test), the Writing section had 39 questions. If you got them all correct, you would get an 80. If you got one wrong, your score dropped 1.25 points, but you round up to a 38, which gives you a 78. However, the next error brings you down (rounded up) to a 37, which gives you a score of 73! Then, the next error triggers rounding down to a score of 35, which gives you a score of 70. Like the SAT, the PSAT is very nonlinear near the top. That's the only way they can separate students. Like the SAT, the nonlinear scale causes huge changes in score for very few errors.

Here is the percentile mappings for sophomores taking the PSAT. There is a different table for juniors.

70 - 97th percentile
73 - 98th
78 - 99+
80 - 99+

For juniors, it's

70 - 94th percentile
73 - 96th
78 - 99th
80 - 99th

It appears that many do well on the writing (grammar) portion. However, this nonlinear pattern exists for CR and Math.

The PSAT uses scores that go up to 80 rather than 800. They sum the three scores to get a number that has a high of 240. You have to get over 200 to have a chance at being a National Merit Finalist for your state. You probably have to get over 210, and in some big states, you have to get close to 220. This means that you are in the range where one or two errors can make a huge difference.

Colleges do take into account the whole student, but some colleges seem to pay too much attention to the SAT/ACT scores. My impression is that the top tier schools are more flexible because their average SAT score will be high no matter what. The problem might be the next tier lower, where they put a bigger emphasis on getting their SAT scores higher. Does anyone have a link to the main college ranking formula? I would like to know how the average SAT score is weighted. On the plus side, you can trade SAT for money.

Anonymous said...

It was a different PSAT sitting (Oct 2011), but the same section (Writing Skills), and the one error took my son from 80 to 75. It must have been a more heavily weighted question this time, or the test was overall somewhat easier, so there was less room to distinguish the top students.

If my son had been a junior, he would have passed the National Merit thresholds (he only missed the one question, so his total was 235). I hope he does as well next year, when it counts.

The University of California admissions formula is documented at

SteveH said...

My son took the Oct 2011 PSAT, but I thought that the scores aren't sent out yet. How did you get the results so soon?

Anonymous said...

I believe you get them from his counselor. I haven't heard a peep from mine, but that's par for the course.

College Board allows you to access the scores sometime around Jan 15 without permission from the school.


Anonymous said...

SusanS is correct. The consultant teacher gave us a link that we could use to retrieve the PSAT scores as soon as she got access to them.

I was not aware that students couldn't retrieve their own scores without that link—that seems like rather strange behavior for College Board.

Grace said...

The theory (from what I've been told) is that the College Board only wants students to learn about their PSAT scores from their guidance counselors. Therefore, students cannot know their scores until after the GCs have done their spiel on "what the scores mean". Silly and infuriating, as far as I'm concerned.

Since the GCs are typically so busy with seniors this time of year, juniors have to wait to learn what they got on their PSATs.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Grace. Very annoying.


SteveH said...

Look what I just got in an email.

"Wed. Dec. 21st – PSAT Results Presentation (Advisory)"

CassyT said...

Just wanted to share that our school has hired a FABULOUS college counselor.

He has videos that walk students and parents through how to read the PSAT and PLAN tests as well as how to work with Naviance, our online college tool.

Once we have students taking the ACT & SAT later in the school year, I'm sure he'll include video explanations of those as well.

The school currently has 32 11th graders, but 5 of them are foreign exchange students, and not taking these tests.

If you want to look: Liberty Common High School College Planning.

BTW - We received the PLAN test results within 2 weeks of my son taking the test.

Glen said...

We have some friends in Shanghai--very rich--who sent their daughter to an exclusive prep school here in California. They're asking me how they go about hiring someone to manage the process of getting their daughter into the best college possible (given that she's bright but that the most elite schools are probably out of reach.)

They want someone to manage the whole admissions campaign, choosing the right schools, managing the tutors, getting the tests prepped, taken, and retaken in the optimal way, managing the admissions application process, etc.

These people don't speak English, they're busy making lots of money in China, and they have no desire to become experts on this American college admissions stuff. They just want to outsource the job to some American specialist.

I told them that I didn't know of any such specialty in the US. High school guidance counselors may or may not give useful advice, but they wouldn't do any management. I told them that parents did this job. They told me that (no offense, but) rich people don't operate that way, regardless of nationality. They can't afford this kind of distraction from whatever is making them rich, they want the task done by experts anyway, and they can afford to hire the best.

Now they're telling me that American kids in their daughter's school are starting to get their acceptance letters from Ivy League schools, and apparently all these kids are using "external counselors," as they suspected. I've never heard of such a thing. (I know about the brokers in China, but these are Americans working for Americans in the US.) The American parents are apparently reluctant to reveal their competitive secrets, especially to non-English speaking parents on the other side of the Pacific.

Does anybody know what's going on here? Who are these "external counselors"?

Anonymous said...

Uh, Glen,

The rich people in my area absolutely do this. I was shocked to find out that a friend I know spent many thousands of dollars to do exactly that. This is pretty common from what I understand in the wealthier suburbs.

I don't personally know of anyone since I don't hang out with the super wealthy set, but I'm sure I couldn't afford it anyway.


Jen said...

Absolutely. All big/medium sized cities have them, for sure. I know there's a person in my city who will skype with clients, as well, so they don't have to be located here. Everything is done via skype and email.

I've met her and honestly? I wish I'd thought of doing it back when already a senior was younger...This person takes kids on as 9th or 10th graders, though (obviously) will also take on kids later in their HS years. It's not cheap, but having gone through it twice now, I'll be saving my pennies for the third kid.

College admissions counseling or college admissions consultant

ChemProf said...

Yes, this is increasingly common. There is a pretty open discussion at Berkeley Parents Network:

Interestingly, a couple of them wrote a book about the kind of scores for money strategy we had talked about recently: The Financial Aid Handbook: Getting the Education You Want for the Price You Can Afford

SATVerbalTutor. said...


Feel free to contact me in regard to your friends in Shanghai. I may be able to help.

Erica (

Glen said...

Thanks for this information. I'm reading the responses with interest, and I'll follow all these leads and educate myself (so to speak). I'll pass the word on to China and do my part to turn this trade deficit around.

SteveH said...

"I'll pass the word on to China and do my part to turn this trade deficit around."

US colleges seem to be a growth industry, not just for top end students. Even back when I was in college, my first roommate was from Iran (Shah days). They weren't there for a top-notch education. They were first learning English and spending money. I guess the university thought that it was my job to help them out. All of the Iranians were split up and paired with American students. In the old days, Americans used to take the grand tour of Europe. It seems that now it's the other way around - get your education in the US.

Crimson Wife said...

Glen- the practice of hiring a private admissions counselor has been standard practice in upper-middle class areas since at least the early part of the last decade.

My youngest brother graduated H.S in '03 and my parents at first balked at his request to hire one. After all, they hadn't done it for me when I applied to college in '94 and I'd gotten accepted to Stanford. However, after they asked around, they discovered that my brother was telling the truth when he said that all the other families who were targeting selective colleges were hiring them. If my parents didn't do the same, my brother would be at a major competitive disadvantage.

It's unfortunate that families now have to shell out thousands for an admissions consultant but when the top schools are admitting fewer than 1 in 10 applicants, it has become the new norm.

kcab said...

I want to say something about a tool that CassyT mentioned, Naviance. I love it! My district uses this too and I just found out about it this week. Since my oldest is a freshman, I haven't yet seen all the features, but the one that I have is important. We only have access to the college information section so far, which in our case includes information on college application/acceptance/enrollment from our high school for the last 5-6 years. Nice to have something a little closer to an answer regarding what GPA/SAT scores are needed to get into various colleges from our HS. Though, it's not exactly comforting information.

Also wanted to say, I feel a lot more comfortable with the SAT score side of the process than with the GPA part.

On college application consultants - yep, have friends who have used them, one of DH's old college friends *is* one. Wasn't the author of "What High Schools Don't Tell You" in that line of work too?

Glen said...

What do these people really do in the US? In China, they are campaign managers; they aren't tutors. You pay them to manage the process, and they hire the right essay ghost writer, pay the right people to get your transcript "updated", fill out your applications, and so on.

What do these American "admissions counselors" actually do? From the ads I've seen in the past couple of days, they mostly seem to be tutors selling advice and their own admissions essay ghost writing services.

Anonymous said...

We have Naviance, too. It's very helpful.


Jen said...

They do all the things that parents try to do, only (if they are any good) they do it with a far larger base of knowledge!

They talk with kids about what they think they want in a college, they look at their activities (and if you are starting early in HS) and recommend areas that might be missing and should be beefed up to look good on an application. They know the applications/supplemental essay questions and are able to steer kids around those shoals.

They have the HUGE advantage of not being a teenager's parent, too! Have you ever had the experience of hearing your child report some amazing piece of knowledge a teacher imparted to them -- only to wonder why they never heard you the 50 times you told them the same thing?!

They work on essays with them (and again, good ones don't do any writing FOR them, but others...) and keep a deadline calendar to make sure nothing falls between the cracks.

They can tell them which schools accept large portions of a class through early decision (Penn, say, loves those kids that say they want to be their one and only and accepts a huge percentage of a class from early apps.)

Basically, they know a lot of stuff that parents don't know and can impart it to kids without the angst of a parent-child interaction. Also, the big piles of money make the kid respect their advice as well, I bet.

Crimson Wife said...

My DH hired an admissions consultant for his MBA application. The main thing he got out of it was help with branding and selling himself. Most of the applicants have similar GPA's, test scores, honors & awards, extracurriculars, and for b-school apps, work experience. A university like the one my DH attended could take the top 2/3 to 3/4 of the applicant pool and hold a random lottery, and those admitted would be pretty much equally qualified as those selected by the admissions officers.

The admissions consultant helps package the client in such a way as to try & make him/her stand out in a sea of equally qualified applicants.

Can a savvy parent do the same thing himself/herself? Perhaps, but the typical parent isn't a former admissions officer and doesn't have the inside scoop on what works with specific target schools. The consultant my DH worked with didn't write DH's essays for him, but he did offer advice on which of the essays would stand the best chance of success at which specific b-schools.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any idea how far down the USNWR rankings this ends? I get that kids targeting Harvard/Yale/Princeton (and Stanford, MIT, ...) would do this. Do the students targeting Berkeley (#21 overall) do this, too? University of Michigan (#28 overall)? Georgia Tech (#36)? Texas (#45)? ASU (#132)?

-Mark Roulo

SATVerbalTutor. said...

It ends somewhere around the upper 2nd tier. Think BU, Syracuse, GW, Franklin and Marshall -- moderately competitive privates. At least in New York, the publics (except UVA, William and Mary, UMich, and *maybe* Berkeley) generally don't enter into the picture for kids attending private school.

Jen said...

I think it also depends on the kid. If you feel your child is -- brighter/more motivated/basically better than they look on paper -- then you might seek out someone like this to make sure that they get into a school that you feel is most appropriate to their abilities and needs.

But, yes, for a lot of the either bigger or public schools, it's really just scores, scores, scores. If you've got the scores and the grades and no teachers say you are're good to spend a lot less money on both the application process AND the education. ;-D

Allison said...

I know (wealthy) relatives who did this for Skidmore, Macalester, Oberlin, Reed. Skidmore and Reed are around 50 on the Liberal Arts rankings, Macalester even lower.

SteveH said...

PSAT is even worse, one error in "Writing Skills" drops you from 80 to 75.

My son just got his scores back and got 2 wrong on the writing section - silly mistakes, really. His score was a 70. On a practice test, he got one wrong and got a 78. The PSAT write-up says:

“Concern for fairness is an integral part of the development of the PSAT/NMSQT. Comprehensive reviews and analyses ensure that questions and tests are fair for different groups of students. Although differences in test performance may be the result of many factors, long-term educational preparation is the primary cause. The test itself reflects such differences but does not cause them. “

Long-term educational preparation? Not at the top end.

We also have this:

“Student score reports show a numerical score for each skill area, as well as a range that extends from a few points below the score to a few points above. This range shows the extent to which an individual student's score might differ with repeated testing, assuming that the student's skill level remains the same. “

My son's range for a 70 in the writing section was 66-74, but if he got one more answer correct, he would have gotten a 75. Two more would have been an 80.

In math, it's not quite so bad. With 3 wrong, he got a 72 ... but two were really dumb mistakes. It's all about practice for him.

As GSWP says:

"These tests are terrible at distinguishing students at the high end, which makes the use of the PSAT as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test almost criminal."

At the top end, it's all about preparation for performace or contest academics. The questions try to trick you, which seems to be an attempt to check for aptitude, but they claim that it's about long-term preparation.

The big one that caught all of the kids (including my son) in my son's precalc class was:

No. 37.

"There are 99 adults and 1 child in a room. How many of the adults must leave the room so that 2 percent of all of the people remaining are children?"

Everyone put in 49. They all apparently did the math correctly, but forgot to include the child before they subtracted. You are confident about the math, but then you screw up something else.

This is not about math. Is it aptitude? Do inherently smart people automatically catch these things? All of the time? What is the standard deviation for smart people catching these questions? What is the difference in score based on one or two stupid mistakes? What is the difference between aptitude and preparation? Is the willingness to prepare for this sort of test meaningful?

So now we have a base from which my son can learn to play the game. We will expend way too much time trying to get a few more questions correct.