From the Vault: Understanding Your LSAT Score: The “Curve,” Explained

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In a surprise move, LSAT scores were released late last night (so much for day-old promises, LSAC), which means a bunch of LSAT students have a shiny new LSAT score. You’ll hopefully hear lots of score recipients gushing about their scores, and you’ll probably hear some folks who are bummed out as well (we’ll have a post for those guys in the next couple days).

And when it comes to the February LSAT, that’s about all you’ll hear — the test is nondisclosed, which means that LSAC doesn’t release the test questions, nor do they tell students what they got wrong or even how many questions they got wrong. Students get their scores out of 180, and that’s it.

However, the February LSAT is still “curved” in the same way any other LSAT is. For the uninitiated, LSAT scores range from 120 to 180, and the test is “curved” so that even if a test was relatively easy or difficult, a 160 on any given test is equivalent to a 160 on any other test.

(I’m using scare quotes because the LSAT isn’t technically “curved”; instead, LSAC performs a statistical process called test equating in order to make the scores equivalent. Steve Schwartz over at LSAT Blog has a more detailed explanation about what that means, if you’re interested, but for all intents and purposes you can think of it like any other curved test.)

This means that not all tests are exactly the same level of difficulty — some might be particularly tricky, while others might be pretty straightforward with no real curveballs. However, when a test is tougher, you can get more questions wrong to end up with a certain score.

When we talk about the “curve,” we’re usually talking about the number of questions you can get wrong and still get a 170 (just since that’s an easy number to discuss). On a particularly tough version of the test, you can get as many as 14 or 15 questions wrong and still get a 170; on a test that is relatively easy, you’ll need to get as few as 9 questions wrong for that same score.

For instance, let’s take a look at the curves on the last few (released) test administrations. September and December 2017 were relatively “forgiving” tests, on which you could get 11 and 12 questions wrong, respectively, and still get that 170. In June 2017, however, you could only get 9 questions wrong if you wanted a 170.

It’s also interesting to compare these curves to the number of questions you needed to answer correctly to get a 160. We just established that September and December 2017 had relatively lenient curves for a 170. For those same tests, if you wanted a 160, you could get 26 or 29 questions wrong, respectively. And in June 2017, the test with the tougher curve for a 170? You could get 26 questions wrong, just like on that September test.

So, if you’re reading about LSAT chatter and you hear someone say, “Oh, that was a really hard test — the curve was -12,” you’ll know that they’re referring to the number of questions you could get wrong and still get a 170. However, you’ll also know that a test with a bigger curve at the top of the scoring scale doesn’t necessarily mean that you had more wiggle room when it comes to other parts of the score spectrum.

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