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GMAT Algorithm FAQ, Part 2

Posted in Test Prep on February 4, 2010 by

David Kuntz is Vice President, Research at Knewton, where he builds the CATs for its online GMAT course. He is one of the brilliant brains behind the accuracy of Knewton CATs. This is part 2 in a series of posts about the algorithm behind the GMAT.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

How is the GMAT actually scored? Here are some more questions that students frequently have about its algorithm.

1. My score doesn’t seem to match my performance: I only got a few questions wrong, but my score isn’t as high as I thought it would be / I got a bunch of questions wrong, yet my score seems higher than it should be.

Most exams are linear assessments, like the SAT or your 10th grade history final. These are scored by counting the number of questions you answer correctly, and sometimes by penalizing for each question you answer incorrectly. The result, a raw score, is then converted to a scaled score, like the 600-2400 range for the SAT.

A computer-adaptive test (CAT) works very differently. It doesn’t really care as much about how many you get right or wrong, but rather which questions you get right and wrong. The CAT algorithm estimates your ability based on a variety of criteria, including the difficulty of a question. After each question, it evaluates your response and updates this estimate. When the test is over, the algorithm converts your quantitative and verbal ability estimates into the quantitative and verbal scaled scores, and then separately combines your quantitative and verbal ability estimates to calculate the overall score.

2. Do the first X number of questions matter more?

Many variables that come into play when the CAT selects your next question. One of them is the CAT’s current estimate of your ability. It uses this estimate to select questions that will be most useful in refining that estimate (if you’re a high performing student, giving you low difficulty questions isn’t usually as useful in discerning your true ability as giving you harder questions, and vice versa). What is important to remember is that you should not try to guess how you are doing by whether the question in front of you seems easy or difficult; every question deserves your full attention. With that understood, unless you have completely bombed the test, it is usually the case that missing a couple of very hard questions late in the test will have a smaller effect on your final score than missing a couple of very easy questions earlier, not because of their position within the test but because of their levels of difficulty.

3. How severe is the penalty for not finishing a section?

The penalty is significant. You can expect your scaled score to decrease by roughly 1 point for every question that you don’t answer. For example, if you correctly answer every question you encounter but fail to answer the last five, you generally won’t score higher than a 46.

4. I took the GMAT and got a 710, 44q/44v/6 AWA. A friend of mine happened to take the test 6 days later and get the exact same quant/verbal scaled scores but he got a 720. How this could happen?

Both the individual section scores and the overall score are calculated using an estimate of your Math and Verbal abilities derived from your performance on the CAT. Your overall score is not calculated from your section scores. Because your underlying ability estimate might be slightly different from your friend’s, your overall scores might be different.

For example, there are a range of ability estimates that translate into a Verbal score of 40, and there are a range of ability estimates that translate into a Math score of 42. Depending on which specific estimate is calculated for you, your overall score could range from 660 to 680. Please note that the Standard Error of Measurement (SEM) on the overall score for GMAT is 29 points, so scores of 660 / 680 all fall within the standard error.

Check back next week for part 3. Until then, do your homework!