SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.
Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?
No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics — officially or unofficially — based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.
How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?
On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200-800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2-12) of two readers’ 1-6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2-12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score — which included grammar and usage — entirely.
With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400-1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2-8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1-4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.
Readers avoid extremes
What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable — readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that a80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.
What is a good SAT Essay score?
By combining multiple data sources — including extensive College Board scoring information — Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.
We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.
College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.
The role of luck
What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one — far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?
Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores — 4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.
What do colleges expect?
It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students — especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th-75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8-10 on the ACT’s old 2-12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5-7 range (possibly closer to 4-6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8 — for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].
Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th-75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges — including those at UCLA and Berkeley — are 17-20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.
How will colleges use the domain scores?
Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.
How low is too low?
Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.
Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?
For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems — California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same — for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.
Should I skip the essay entirely?
A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85-90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.
Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?
Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1-2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.
Will I be able to see my essay?
Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.
Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?
Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.
Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?
Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.
Key links in this post:
ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests
Your dreams of earning a high school diploma from the US State of California can be realized by passing CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam). The test format has been designed to assess the basic academic skills that should be possessed by students graduating from public schools in California. In other words, the State of California utilizes your performance in CAHSEE to assess all the skills and also the knowledge that you should ideally possess in order to be worthy of a high school diploma as per the state standards.
Do you Know the Importance of CAHSEE Scores?
Do not be under the impression that taking this test is an unnecessary burden that has been heaped upon you. Your performance will be good for you only, especially if you are finding it difficult to cope with the skill levels that are considered essential for high school students. The test scores help in segregating those students who are in need of additional coaching and training since they do not possess academic skills of the level that is expected of high school students graduating from California. These students are then subjected to intensive training to help them improve their skill levels if they have not been able to pass CAHSEE until the end of grade twelve.
The performance of high school students in this test is also used for state accountability purposes by calculating the Academic Performance Index. Moreover, it is used for the Adequate Yearly Progress which is required to meet the requirements of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act.
Are you Aware of the CAHSEE Test Format?
You could be putting in your best for studying for CAHSEE with the aim of passing it, but you might fail to achieve your aim if you are not aware of the following:
- Types of questions asked
- Passing Scores
Both of the above mentioned aspects are indispensable for a good performance in CAHSEE. You will not be able to prepare well if you are not aware of the types of questions asked in the test. At the same time, preparing for the test without knowing the passing scores will be like taking a shot without looking at the target.
The test structure is divided into two parts for evaluating your skills in two major subject areas; English and Math. A brief description of both the parts is given below:
- English-Language Arts (ELA)
This part consists of six strands consisting of multiple-choice questions except for the Writing Applications strand.
- Word Analysis: 7 questions
- Reading Comprehension: 18 questions
- Literary Response and Analysis: 20 questions
- Writing Strategies: 12 questions
- Writing Applications: Essay writing
- English Language Conventions: 15 questions
There are a total of 72 questions asked in this part. In addition, there will be 7questions that are trial test items and these questions will not be scored.
Scoring for ELA
The score for ELA is arrived at by considering your responses to the multiple-choice questions and the essay in different proportions. Your essay score accounts for 20 percent of the ELA score and your performance in the multiple-choice questions accounts for 80 percent of the ELA score.
- Essay score: Your essay is scored by two readers. They will score your essay on a point scale that ranges from 1 to 4. The final essay score will be the average of these two scores. You can also receive a NS (non-scorable) essay score if your essay meets any of the following conditions:
- it does not address the given topic
- it is too short to make any sense or be scored
- it has been written in an illegible writing
- it has not been written in English
The scores are scaled so as to do away with the differences that may arise due to different editions of CAHSEE. The scale scores for the ELA part range from 275 to 450. You can pass this part only if you score 350 or above.
The questions for this part of CAHSEE are drawn from the following subject areas:
- Probability, Data analysis and Statistics: 12 questions
- Number Sense: 14 questions
- Algebra and Functions: 17 questions
- Measurement and Geometry: 17 questions
- Algebra I: 12 questions
- Mathematical Reasoning: 8 questions
There are a total of 92 questions in this part out of which 12 questions will be trial questions and they will not be scored.
Scoring for Math
The scoring for the mathematics part is carried out depending upon the questions that have been answered correctly by you. The raw scores are then scaled to a scale score ranging from 275 to 450. The passing score for this part is 350.
You need not pass both the parts in the same administration in order to pass CAHSEE. You can retake the part not passed by you in consecutive administrations. If you want more information about the test format, then you should visit the official website, www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/hs/ for a detailed description of the test format and the policies governing the conduct of the test.
Are you Aware of What the Score Report Contains?
You need to be aware of various aspects related to the score report so that you know what to expect when you see your score report. You will receive the Student and Parent Report in approximately seven weeks from the test date. One copy of the score report will be handed over to the parents of the test-taker and another copy will be filed with the student’s school records. The following will be displayed in the score report:
- General information about the test taker
- Information about the test-taker’s performance in the most recent test taken by him. This would be for a single part if the test-taker has taken one part only. This information will be in the form of the scale scores for the part taken.
- Whether you have passed or not will also be mentioned in the score report. This information will be displayed under the heading ‘Status’ in the score report. Status will be marked as ‘Passed’ if you have scored more than or equal to 350 in the part taken by you; otherwise it will be marked with a ‘Not Passed’. Status for a particular part will be marked as ‘Satisfied Requirement’ if you have taken that part in a previous administration and have passed it.
- Your performance in each of the strands for each part will also be indicated in the score report. This will be done under two heads. One will be for the number of questions asked in the strand and the other will be for the number of questions in the strand that you have answered correctly.
- Your Writing Applications score will also be displayed.
Finally, What if you Fail in CAHSEE?
Although, students cannot ignore the amount of hard work, studies and preparation required for passing CAHSEE, this test has not been formulated to put an additional load on high school students. You will be given a fairly high number of opportunities to pass the test if you are not able to pass it in your first attempt.
- If you have not been able to pass either one or both parts in grade ten, then you can retake the parts not passed by you up to two times per school year in grade eleven and up to five times per school year in grade twelve.
- If you are an adult student, you can retake the parts not passed by you up to three times per school year.
- You can avail the facility of undergoing special coaching and training for up to two consecutive academic years after the end of grade twelve if you haven’t been able to pass CAHSEE.
As can be seen, CAHSEE can be passed comfortably with a preparation schedule that is headed in the right direction with the right amount of hard work and dedication.