Decoding Your PSAT and SAT Scores

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Decoding Your PSAT and SAT Scores

Each time SAT and PSAT scores are released, thousands of students log onto the College Board website to check their total score and section scores. But below those scores is a little button reading “More Details.” This is where College Board gives you a far more comprehensive breakdown of your test performance. Though most students do click that link, the amount of data can feel overwhelming. Besides, everyone talks about section scores and overall scores, does this data really matter?

The truth is that on the old version of the SAT, any detail beyond section scores, total score, and essay score was just for your benefit. However, the new SAT scoring system will allow both students and colleges to delve into test strengths and weaknesses in much greater detail.

The new SAT score report will include up to 16 different scores, all derived from various parts of the same 4-hour test. You’ll also be able to see how you stack up to other test-takers at your grade level, and whether you’re on track to succeed in college-level classes. If you choose to take the essay portion, you’ll be able to see a scanned copy of your essay and an essay score breakdown. The new PSAT score report even allows you to dive further into your test with a question-by-question breakdown.

Though the College Board will not hold the first new SAT until early March, students have been able to take the new PSAT since October 2015. We’ve accompanied this article with snippets from the October 2015 PSAT score report so our readers can see what kind of information the new PSAT and SAT score reports will contain.

You’ll notice that the PSAT has a slightly different score range than the SAT. While SAT scores range from 400 to 1600, the PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520. Both tests are scored on the same scale, so if you get a 1200 on the PSAT, that means you’d likely get the same score on the SAT. However, the PSAT is slightly easier than the SAT. That’s why the best you can do on it is only a 1520, not a 1600 like on the SAT. However, it’s the best possible predictor of a student’s score on the actual SAT and will contain similar data.


Colleges will receive the following scores:

  • One composite score (out of 1600 on the SAT)
  • Two section scores (out of 800 on the SAT)
  • An SAT essay score (out of 24)
  • Three test scores (out of 40)
  • Two cross-test scores (out of 40)
  • Seven subscores (out of 15)

Composite Score:

Your composite score is simply your score out of 1600 (or 1520 if you’re taking the PSAT). This score takes into account your performance on the two main sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. However, your score out of 1600 does not include your essay score.


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Section Scores:

Section Scores are simply your scores on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math sections. Your section scores are out of 800 and combine to create your composite score.
You’ll also notice the red, yellow, and green lines below some of the scores. This graphic shows you the range of possible scores as well as whether your score puts you above or below the “College Readiness Benchmark.” The College Readiness Benchmark tells you whether you’re on track to succeed in first year college courses. If your score falls in the yellow or green section of the graphic, then you’re on track to meet the demand of college first-year college courses. Keep in mind that your College Readiness Benchmark only measures you against students in your same grade.



Essay Score:

The new SAT will include an optional essay portion. Your essay is graded out of 24 points, and reported to schools separately. Two different graders will give a score out of 4 points for each of the following dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. The best possible score is 12 points per grader. Both grader’s scores are then added together for a score between 8 and 24 points.

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Test Scores:

The score report breaks down your performance on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section by giving you scores for both reading and writing.

Your Reading test score is based on your performance in the 65-minute Evidence-Based Reading Test, while your Writing test score is based on your performance in the 35-minute Writing and Language Test. Your Math score is based on your performance on the entire Math section, both the calculator math test and the no-calculator math test.

If you take the PSAT, you’ll receive three scores out of 38. The SAT will give you a score out of 40.



Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.20.43 AMSubscores will allow colleges to measure your skills in more detail. On both the PSAT and SAT, subscores will be out of 15. Most of the questions on the SAT will count toward at least one subscore or cross-test score category. We’ll describe cross-test scores next.

Different types of questions will count toward different subscores.

Command of Evidence

  • Questions that ask you to improve an argument by identifying the details that best support the author’s argument or make conclusions based on the information provided in the passage.

Words in Context

  • Questions that ask to decide whether a word fits in an existing passage, or to define a word using context clues.

Expression of Ideas

  • Questions that ask you to reorganize a passage in order to create a stronger persuasive argument.

Standards of English Conventions

  • Questions that ask you to identify errors in punctuation, sentence construction, verb usage, pronoun agreement, or other written conventions.

Heart of Algebra

  • Questions that ask you to create, solve, or interpret a linear expression, equation, or inequality. Most of these will involve at least one variable if not more.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.17.33 AMProblem-Solving

  • Questions that ask you to solve real-world problems by using concepts like ratios, percentages, graphical representation of data, and statistics.

As you can see from the graphic on the right, the PSAT score report provides a question-by-question breakdown. Question #1 counted toward the student’s Words in Context subscore score as well as their Expression of Ideas subscore score.


Cross-Test Scores:

The College Board will include several passages and content directly related to historical or scientific material. However, it has assured students that they will not be asked questions that couldn’t be answered using the source passage. For example, if you’re asked to read a document from the founding of the U.S. as part of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, you might be asked about the argument made within the document but you won’t be asked about the historical context.

You’ll receive a score out of 40 for Analysis in History and another score out of 40 for Analysis in Science.

Analysis in History/Social Studies

  • Questions that ask you to read an important historical document and examine the hypotheses or argument. You might also be asked to make editoral changes to improve the document.

Analysis in Science

  • Questions that ask you to read scientific passages and identify the hypotheses or pick out important data.

From the question breakdown above, you can see that Questions #1,  #3, and #5 on no-calculator Math section counted toward the student’s Analysis in Science score. Meanwhile, #7 counted toward their Analysis in History/Social Studies.

Your score report is crucial to helping you gauge your performance against other students and track areas of improvement. If you know that you didn’t do well in Expression of Ideas, you can review the type of questions that would count toward that subscore. You can also review the general concepts tested.


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