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It’s not just the “P”: Differences between the PSAT and SAT, Part One

Many students and parents are understandably confused when it comes to interpreting PSAT results and what those results may indicate about future SAT scores. There actually is no definitive conversion or correlation between the two scores, primarily because the two tests are not identical and because, in most cases, a good deal of time elapses between taking the PSAT and taking the SAT. This is why I demur slightly whenever I hear parents saying things like, “Well, my son got a 198 on the PSAT, so that means he got a 1980 on the SAT.” Not quite.

If you want to know my very general (and not statistically proven or supported) rule, here it is:

Take any individual subject score on the PSAT’s 20-80 scale, tack a zero onto it (multiply it by 10), and subtract about 30 or 40 points from the result. This is your very approximate likely score in that subject on the SAT.

For example, suppose you scored a 58 on the PSAT math. If you were to take the SAT immediately after the PSAT (we’re talking the next morning, with absolutely no preparation or studying in between), your SAT math score would probably be around 540 or 550 (58 becomes 580, and then we subtract 30 to 40 points giving us 550 to 540, respectively). If you want to apply this to a total score, you would need to tack on the zero and then subtract 30 or 40 points in each of the 3 subjects (so we’re talking 90 to 120 points total). So, a total PSAT score of 174 becomes an SAT score in the low to mid 1600s.

SCORING

There are few, if any, differences in the way the tests are scored, other than that pesky 2- versus 3-digit issue.

Both tests use the same “raw score” point system on the multiple choice questions. That is, students earn 1 point for every correct response, lose one-fourth or 0.25 points for every incorrect answer, and neither gain nor lose any points for questions they skip. On both tests, there is no penalty for incorrect answers on the “Student-Produced Response” math questions, or “Grid-Ins” as I like to call them.

So, for example, let’s say a student, on the PSAT critical reading, answers (and bubbles) 39 questions correctly and 5 questions incorrectly, and leaves 4 blank, he will earn 39 – (.25*5) raw points, or 37.75 raw points. This “raw score” is then converted to what is known as a “scaled score” on the 20-80 PSAT scale. For instance, the aforementioned student’s 37.75 critical reading raw points would first be rounded to 38 and then converted to a 65 on the PSAT scale (this scaled score will vary slightly from test to test; e.g, 38 raw points might scale to a 64 or 66 on some tests). This process is identical to that used to find a student’s score on the SAT, except that the final scaled score is given on the more familiar 200-800 point scale.

Also, for the most part, if you consider a particular percentage of raw points earned on both tests, it will tend to translate to the same scaled score on each test. For instance, if you earn 38 raw points out of the 48 possible raw points on the PSAT critical reading, and 53 raw points out of the 67 possible on the SAT critical reading (both of which equate to about 79%), you will end up with about a 64 on the PSAT and a 640 on the SAT. (Again, these numbers are approximate and will vary slightly from test to test.)

Where this concurrence starts to break down just a bit, however, is at the very highest score ranges on the math, and this is one respect in which some students and parents find the PSAT to be less forgiving than the SAT. To wit, on many PSAT scales, missing just one of the 38 math questions will drop your score 4 or 5 points (to a 76 or 75). One question! If you are going for National Merit Scholarship (which we’ll address in another post), those 4 or 5 points are absolutely crucial. By comparison, on the SAT, missing only one math question will give you a minimum of 770, and on a few tests, may even still give you a perfect 800. Of course, this difference will affect a very small number of students, however (namely, those going for perfect scores!), so it shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

Again, remember that this is a very general rule based on my experience, and is by no means meant to represent an empirical fact, but there are several reasons that a subsequent SAT score would likely be lower were a student to take the SAT immediately after the PSAT.

. . . continued in PT 2. . .

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