For students and parents accustomed to their high schools’ grading scales, standardized test scores can feel inscrutable. Bad enough that every exam adopts its own arbitrary scale, but the test scores they produce show little relation to the number of questions a tester may answer correctly.
Even more confusing, test scores and school grades are not at all aligned. Perfect grades definitely don’t translate to perfect or even excellent test scores, depending, of course, on the complex interactions between students, teachers, and assessments.
Yet, if understanding what a given test score means is difficult, comprehending the magnitude of an increase from one score to another can be exponentially more challenging. How should someone who isn’t an educational professional recognize that a 2-point improvement is outstanding on an AP exam, good on the ACT, and too low to measure on the SAT? Obviously, the easiest way to appreciate the impact of a score increase is to consult an educational professional, particularly your trusted prep professional. But you can take a big step towards understanding improvement by considering the different lenses through which scores and increases can be evaluated.
The easiest way to evaluate a score increase is by the total number of points, the more the better. In general, increases of 200+ SAT points or 3+ ACT points represent respectable improvements. Keep in mind, though, that some points come easier than others. The closer a score creeps towards perfection, the harder the next point is to earn. Most standardized test scores conform to a strict or approximate Gaussian distribution, better known as the bell curve. Improving within the big part of the bell is easier than picking up the points needed to move all the way to the right.
In an era where all colleges and academic programs accept the SAT and ACT equally, considering one score in terms of the other can provide valuable context. This strategy helps a lot if you come from a part of the country strongly affiliated with one of the two. For example, we New Yorkers speak SAT much more fluently than ACT, so comparing an ACT score or increase to its equivalent on the SAT can illuminate the impact of an improvement. The SAT/ACT Concordance Table makes this task simple.
We added percentiles to our presentation of SAT/ACT Concordance data because percentiles clarify what scores really mean. For example, a score of 23 is approximately 69th percentile, which means someone who earns a 23 basically scores better than or equal to 69% of the entire cohort of test takers. Scoring a 29 on the next ACT means 6 points of total improvement, which is impressive enough, but also a jump to 92nd percentile. How many test takers does a 23 percentile point increase represent? To answer that, you have to know how many high schoolers take the ACT or SAT each year.
Pre-COVID, we saw roughly 2 million SAT test takers and 1.8 million ACT test takers. Those numbers have dropped during the pandemic, but the 2020 ACT National Report accounted for over 1.6 million test takers. Based on that number, a move from 69th to 92nd percentile represents a leap over approximately 360,000 of your peers who scored better than you on the previous test. That’s impressive by any standard.
Sometimes, evaluation of a score improvement has more to do with the test taker than the test. No matter how much or how little you improve, think about how much effort you put into preparation:
1. How much time did you put into preparation?
2. How much effort did you put into preparation?
3. What were you scoring on practice tests before test day?
4. How much did you do to ensure you were ready for peak performance on test day?
An honest evaluation of everything that happened both before and during a big test can make a small improvement look that much better.
Ultimately, the most important score increase is the one that brings you to–or beyond–your target score. A 4.0 average doesn’t guarantee a 1600 or anywhere near that on the SAT, but most applicants don’t need scores of that magnitude to reach cutoffs for admissions, honors, or merit aid. No matter how much or how little you improve, celebrate every point. Tests like the SAT and ACT are designed to challenge everyone. Everyone who improves through dedication, hard work, and focus deserves congratulations.