What’s a Good SAT Subject Test Score?

By March 29, 2016SAT Subject Tests

2016_march_29
“What’s a good score?” is the second most common question we hear about Subject Tests — right after “Which subjects should I take?” Students struggle with these two questions because many of their traditional sources of information provide little help. College guidebooks and websites rarely touch on Subject Test scores. There are concordance tables between ACT and SAT Reasoning scores, but nothing that compares ACT or SAT scores to Subject Test results. Unfortunately, students are often drawn to percentiles to judge Subject Test performance, and that happens to be just about the worst place to look.

For example, a U.S. History score of 690 is the 59th percentile and may disappoint a student with a 90th percentile SAT score of 1300 (650 average for Critical Reading and Math). In reality, the student’s performance on U.S. History is excellent. Our analysis shows that his average SAT section score of 650 is a good benchmark for judging Subject Test performance; our student easily clears that mark.
The relationship between SAT or ACT results and Subject Test scores is useful in that it:

  • allows students to assess how “good” their scores are relative to their SAT or ACT performance.
  • helps explain why 200-800 scaled scores are an effective way of judging performance across subjects.
  • helps estimate mean Subject Tests scores at colleges, most of which only report SAT and ACT scores — e.g. a college with a mid-50th percentile range for SAT Critical Reading of 610-660 likely has a Literature score range of approximately 610-660.
  • provides educators with a way of gauging student performance for a course or cohort — e.g. if Springfield High’s Class of 2017 has U.S. History scores 25 points lower than the Class of 2016’s, it does not follow that something went wrong in the history class.

Since all available data on Subject Tests involves the old SAT, scores below refer to the old SAT. In an appendix post we cover converting new PSAT scores and ACT scores to old SAT scores. In typical Subject Test score ranges, the differences between old and new are not pronounced.

Everyone in the Pool
Understanding how SAT or ACT scores can provide these insights into Subject Test scores requires a look at how test taker pools shape percentiles and means and how disparate pools can be linked via SAT scores. All SAT students take both Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math, so the pools of score recipients are identical. This allows percentiles to provide useful comparisons. For example, a student in the 80th percentile for EBRW and the 60th percentile for Math, can be said to be stronger in EBRW. Subject Tests, however, completely upend this sort of interpretation. The pool of 70,000 students taking U.S. History is different from the pool of 60,000 taking Physics. Both of those pools are very different from that of the 1.9 million ACT takers or 1.7 million SAT takers. Percentile scores for Subject Tests can mislead students into taking the wrong tests or submitting the wrong scores. Percentiles should be crossed out with a black Sharpie so that they don’t serve as a distraction.

Correlating SAT Scores and Subject Test Scores
In order to make use of SAT scores to compare pools of testers, we need to demonstrate a correlation with Subject Test scores. It seems intuitive that Literature and SAT Critical Reading would have a high correlation, and College Board studies show it as high as .84. The correlations between SAT Math and Math Level 1 and Math Level 2 Subject Tests are also high at between .77 and .84. What is more surprising — and more useful — is that SAT scores are good indications of the strength of the test taker pool across a wide range of Subject Tests. In other words, the SAT scores of test takers help explain why the average (mean) scores of some Subject Tests are much higher than others.

Plotting Means and What it Means
The chart below plots mean SAT scores against mean Subject Test scores for 9 of the 10 most popular Subject Tests (Spanish and other foreign language exams are not included, because the varying proportions of native speakers makes direct comparisons flawed). In order to keep everything on a 200-800 scale, the average of Critical Reading and Math has been used. In the case of Math 1 and Math 2 scores, only SAT Math scores are used. For the science and history tests, though, a combination of math and verbal scores better predicts mean Subject Test scores. [Data for this chart can be found in an appendix post.] SAT-to-Subject-Test-Scores
Admissions officers have to compare students taking different Subject Tests. Is it acceptable, for instance, to say that a 650 Biology-E is comparable to a 650 Math 2? The relationship between SAT scores and Subject Test scores goes a long way to explaining why it is both acceptable and useful. The Biology-E mean of 625 is 65 points lower than the Math 2 mean of 690, but that is in line with the average SAT scores for the respective pools of test takers of 627 and 693. SAT scores form a kind of bond between scores. Why is this important? Admission officers are able to compare the 200-800 scores without needing to worry that one test is more “difficult” than the other or that the percentiles are “out of whack.” Biology and Math 2 scores will never be truly interchangeable — they reflect ability in different subjects — but as reflections on an applicant’s testing ability, they have a similar validity.

More Supporting Data
One criticism of this analysis is that its inputs are the overall means and the relationship may not be applicable across the full range of scores. For example, the data show that a mean U.S. History score of 645 is associated with a mean SAT score of 645. Does that prove that a U.S. History score of 500 is associated with an SAT score of 500? The annual data set provided by College Board is not rich enough to make this calculation, but historical results provide some level of confirmation. The pool of test takers has shifted dramatically in the last decade as SAT II: Writing was eliminated and as the UC system dropped its Subject Test requirement. Fewer students take the Subject Tests than did a decade ago, and their average SAT scores are higher (primarily the most competitive colleges have left Subject Test requirements in place). Have both sets of scores risen in a predictable manner? The chart below looks at the change in SAT scores for test takers versus the change in Subject Test scores between 2005 and 2015. [Data for this chart can be found in an appendix post.] SAT-to-Subject-Test-Score-Change
The historical figures are in line with the hypothesis that the SAT scores of test takers help explain differences in Subject Test means. State data provides confirmation for even lower scores. In 2010, for example, California students had a mean Literature score of 534 and a mean SAT section score of 548 — an almost identical difference as between the 618 and 631 national scores in 2015.

An Historical Outlier
In looking closely at both scatterplots, there is an obvious outlier — World History. On average, current test takers underperform by 35 points on World History than would be predicted by SAT scores alone. Removing Math from the mix is of no help in explaining the difference. The gap may reflect the difficulty of the World History test, the difficulty in being properly prepared for it, or a miscalculation on the part of test takers. The end result is the same — test takers are more likely to have a low, discrepant World History score than are testers in other subjects. To avoid any unwelcome surprises, we strongly advise prospective testers to take a World History practice test before adding the exam to their line-up.

Questions, Answers, and Limits of the Relationship
It’s important to understand the limitations of this hypothesis. Just because a student obtains a high score on the SAT does not mean that she will obtain a high score in Chemistry. She still needs to know Chemistry. Subject Test results come from self-selected pools of students who have, presumably, felt qualified in their chosen subjects. The data also reflect overall test taker means, so the relationship is more appropriately applied to groups of students than to individual students. A much better solution exists for estimating the scores of a specific student — taking an official practice test (College Board has released at least one practice test for each subject, and Compass can provide a proctored testing environment and scoring for the most popular exams).

Below are examples of how the score relationships help answer real world questions.

  1. My 660 Literature and 710 Physics are both in the 58th percentile. Does that mean that they are the same?”
    The difference in percentile scores reflects the differences in test taker pools and not how “good” your score is. Coming in 58th out of 100 means something different at a local road race than at an Olympics trial. The difference between Literature and Physics test takers is not that stark, but it is important not to let percentile scores cloud your judgment about Subject Tests.Ignoring percentiles does not mean, though, that the 200-800 scaled scores are the only thing to consider in a testing plan. The scores alone do not factor in what the subjects tell colleges about you. For example, submitting U.S. History and Literature as your only Subject Tests is usually not advisable when applying to an engineering program — at least one that requires or recommends Subject Test scores. The storytelling aspect of Subject Tests is why we recommend against taking a foreign language test in which you are a native speaker and against taking Math 1; other parts of your application better address your language fluency, and Math 2 sends a more convincing signal about your math skills — something particularly important for STEM applicants. There are exceptions to every rule, but these recommendations hold for most students.
  2. My ACT Composite and ACT Math of 28 are both 91st percentile, but my 700 on Math 2 is only the 48th percentile. Should I retake Math 2? Is it worth submitting?”
    As with Subject Test to Subject Test comparisons, percentiles are poor indicators of cross-test performance. Almost 2 million students take the ACT each year, whereas only 145,000 talented math students take Math 2. Your ACT Math score can be better compared to your Math 2 score by using a concordance table to find the comparable SAT Math score. [A partial concordance table can be found in Appendix B below.] An ACT to old SAT concordance table shows that a 28 is comparable to a 640 SAT Math. This means that you likely scored higher on Math 2 than did most students with your ACT score. A decision on whether or not to submit a Subject Test score depends on a variety of factors, but it appears that Math 2 would strengthen your testing profile.
  3. “Alma Mater University shows average old SAT scores of 651 CR, 660 M, and 645 W for its recently enrolled class. My SAT scores are good, but how can I know if my Subject Test scores are strong enough?
    Not all students who take Subject Tests end up submitting any or all scores to colleges. Since students are likely to submit their best Subject Test scores, the mean Subject Test scores for enrolled students are often slightly higher than the college’s mean SAT scores. It’s likely that Alma Mater’s mean Subject Test scores are in the 650-680 range. Although having Subject Test scores above or below that mark does not mean acceptance or rejection any more than it would with SAT or ACT scores, you can use average scores or mid-50th percentile scores as a rough way of assessing the strength of your own test scores. This becomes more important if Alma Mater views Subject Test scores as optional. If your scores are above average, they may be useful “plus factors.” If you struggled to get 600s on your Subject Tests, you may want to submit only your SAT or ACT scores. This decision also comes up frequently when students apply to colleges that allow the ACT to substitute for both the SAT and Subject Test.
  4. Our high school has an average Biology-M score of 690 and an average Math 2 score of 640. Is our Math Department doing something wrong?
    There are many reasons why Subject Test scores might differ within a school. For example, the Math Department may encourage all students to take the Math 2, whereas only AP Biology students take Biology-M. An initial step is to compare the pools via SAT scores (or concorded ACT scores). For Math 2, the input is simple: SAT Math scores. A range of 630-650 would be expected based on the Math 2 mean. If the school sees SAT Math scores well outside of that range, it may need to evaluate whether it is having students test at the appropriate time or whether it should add some review of important Math 2 concepts. It’s likely that the pool of Biology-M students has a mean SAT (CR and M) score between 670 and 700. Students taking AP Biology are usually well-prepared for the Biology Subject Test. In fact, given the scores presented, the school may want to consider having more students attempt the exam or take practice tests. These are just thumbnail sketches of how Subject Test scores can be analyzed; there are many factors that educators should consider.

The appendix post contains concordances for ACT and New PSAT and data for the scatterplots above.

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.

23 Comments

  • stajirovka says:

    Thank you for usefull article. Also I have found more information about SAT here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAT_Subject_Tests

  • Rita Tepper says:

    Art,
    What advise would you give to a student applying to Harvard with the following test profile:
    SAT( taken only once March 2016) EBRW 790, Math 760 , Total 1550
    SAT Subject Tests Bio M (taken June 2014 after 9th grade) 740 American History (May 2016 ) 760 and Math 2 (taken June 2016) 720
    Would you send the Math 2 ?
    Student is interested in Cognitive Science

  • jf says:

    ACT super score of 35 (35, 35, 35, 33)…should I submit to highly selective but optional schools subject test scores of: Math 2 -790, US History – 720, Spanish Language (w/o Listening) – 710?

    Thanks from a Compass Student

    • Art Sawyer says:

      jf,
      At highly selective schools where Subject Tests are simply “considered,” then I might let your ACT scores do the talking. While excellent, the scores will not necessarily help you stand out. I do think that you should submit them to schools that “recommend” Subject Tests. A number of highly selective schools in that camp expect to see Subject Tests except in extenuating circumstances.

  • bafr says:

    ACT score = 36, Math 2 subject test = 800; US History subject test = 800; Chemistry subject test = 770. Applying to highly selective schools, would you recommend just sending the 2 top scores? I am writing in my applications that one of my possible majors (also History and Philosophy) is Chemistry. Will schools expect to see a Chemistry subject test if I indicate an interest in Chemistry major?
    Thanks for your advice

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Bafr,
      You should be very proud of all of your scores. Phenomenal job. I would recommend including Chemistry.
      1) 770 is an excellent score. Just because something falls short of 800 does not mean it drags you down.
      2) I think breadth can be an excellent way of demonstrating your qualifications — that’s why Subject Tests exist.
      3) [My weakest point.] If you are an admission officer looking at a potential Chemistry major, are you happier to see a student with a 770 or one who didn’t bother to submit (or possibly even take) the Chemistry test?

  • Ramesh says:

    Hi Art
    My son has a 36 in ACT (36 in Math and 36 in Science) and a 2330 in SAT including a 800 in Math section. He has a 800 in Chem subject test, 780 in Math II (Took in Freshman year) and recently scored a 760 in Physics subject test. He is planning to apply to Cal and MIT as well as few other colleges for engineering. He is worried about submitting his Physics score, and in addition most of these schools only need two Subject tests. Will Physics hurt him or help him? Should we also submit Physics or just submit Chem and Math II? Thank you for your advise?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Ramesh,
      What excellent scores! It’s hard to think of a 760 as being a weak score, but it is true that a number of applicants to the very top engineering programs will have even higher Physics scores. The key, though, is that this is his third subject. Colleges generally view subjects after the first two as “plus factors.” I think the fact that he took Physics and did so well would be a valuable addition to his testing portfolio.

  • Chris says:

    Hi Art,

    Thank you for your article. I’ve just received scores for my January subject tests but am unsure which to send in. What would you advise a student applying to Harvard/Princeton with the following test profile:
    New SAT (submitted): 1520, EBRW 740, Math 780 Essay: 18/24

    Subject Tests:
    Taken Jan 2017: Math 2 750, Biology E 660
    Taken October 2016: Literature 660, French 630 (not a native speaker)

    I think I will send in my Math 2, but which of the other three do you think would most aid my application?
    For some context: I am a UK applicant, Afro-Caribbean heritage, interested in Philosophy/Economics

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Chris,
      It’s really a toss-up on Biology and Literature (I wouldn’t worry about French). I’d like to at least suggest repeating one or both. 660’s would be on the low side of Subject Test scores at H/P. You’d only need to submit your highest scores.

  • Isabella K says:

    Hi!
    I recently received my SAT Subject test scores for the U.S. History Subject Test that I took in May. I received a 720. While I am not necessarily upset with this score, I was expecting to my score to be a little bit higher. Could you give some perspective on how “good” this score is? I’m in the 76th percentile, so I know I’m above the average score on the U.S. History test. Also, how much of a positive addition will this score be if I choose to include it in my applications this fall for colleges?
    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Isabella,
      Percentiles are a tricky way to assess a Subject Test score, so you are right to be inquisitive. I like to think about how your score stacks up against your other scores. At highly competitive colleges, Subject Test scores, on average, are higher than old SAT scores. I should emphasize the “old” part. New SAT scores are higher than old SAT scores, so we can loosely say that SAT scores and Subject Test scores will be about the same at top colleges. If your SAT scores are in the 650-740 range (or lower), then your U.S. History exam certainly won’t hurt you. If you are scoring in the 1500 range on your SAT, then your U.S. History exam probably doesn’t improve your testing portfolio. In that case, I might suggest that you send it only to colleges requiring Subject Tests.

  • Alice Wang says:

    Hi,
    I got my son’s SAT World History score 750 that is in 87% today. His math is 800 and physics is 780. If he applies for Stanford, do you think we shall send top two subjects or we can send all three of them?

    Thanks

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Alice,
      I would recommend sending all three. It’s understandable that a student’s third best score is less than his best, and there is no reason to hide from a 750. It shows an excellent performance in a non-STEM area to go with his Math and Physics results.

  • Pacey says:

    Should one retake an SAT Chem Score of 700 and a SAT score of 1440?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Pacey,
      Your 700 Chemistry is a good score and matches with your 1440. I would recommend that you consider a few things:
      1) Will a higher score help you? This depends on where you are applying and also on what sort of gain you can expect. At a 700, there is still room for improvement.
      2) Do you think you can achieve a higher score? Based on your preparation and practice tests, was the 700 much lower than expected. Even more important, are you in a position to do better? Presumably you are not taking a chemistry class over the summer, so it will mean studying on your own or with a tutor.
      3) Does repeating work with your schedule. Trying to raise a good score is different than trying to raise a weak score. Don’t force it. If it is going to interfere with your SAT plans or classes or applications, you probably shouldn’t force it.
      4) Do you want to repeat. You have a good score. Are you really interested enough in raising it to put in the work and deal with the stress of another test day.

      Good luck with whichever decision you make!

      • Pacey says:

        Thank you for replying.
        1) A higher score will definitely help me and keep my higher options open. At the moment, my main goal is to get into the Honors engineering programs for UT Austin and Texas A and M.
        2) It was much lower than expected. And you do bring up a good point about improving my score whatsoever, considering that I am not taking a chemistry class.
        3) Repeating works. Should I retake the SAT score of 1440?
        4) I’m conflicted about whether I should retake both of these scores, as I believe a higher score is better, but I don’t know if I can achieve that higher score.
        Thanks again.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Pacey,
          I can’t speak to the competitiveness of the UT and A&M engineering programs. Subject Test scores are completely optional and are unlikely to receive much weight. If you were to repeat a test — and I’m not saying that you must — I would recommend the SAT. Students often improve with time and practice, whereas the Chemistry test poses an additional obstacle. I do think you should submit your score.

  • Yolanda says:

    Hi, I recently took two SAT subject tests in May of this year. On the Bio M test, I got a 660, and on Math 2, I got a 630. I know that these scores aren’t that high, but are they enough for a UC such as LA? I’m all debating if I should retake them or not because I don’t know if I can do better if I do retake them. What do you think i should do?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Yolanda,
      When the UCs stopped requiring Subject Tests, they also stopped reporting scores for applicants and admits. We know from prior experience that scores were roughly in line with SAT scores. The average SAT scores for UCLA are likely to be 700-720 in EBRW and Math. Admissions rates drop off quickly for students in the 600’s. I would consider retaking the exams (at least M2) or choosing not to send the Subject Tests to the UCs. As it stands, they do not help your testing portfolio.

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