Bubble Sheets Be Damned: Analyzing the New Digital SAT
The College Board made waves recently when it announced the rough framework for its new (and improved?) digital test. The College Board plans to release the test in the US in the spring of 2024 (with a digital PSAT to be administered in the fall of 2023). Although still a couple years away from implementation, the test signals a new chapter from the College Board and likely will mean a number of substantive changes to the testing landscape more broadly.
9th graders—the class of 2025—are the only current high school students who are affected by the new digital test. Students in grades 10 through 12 need not worry about the new test and its implications. Full length digital practice tests from the College Board should be available by the fall of 2022. Information already released, however, gives us a sense of its general shape. Below, we’ve compiled a snapshot of what will change—as well as what is likely to stay the same—on the digital SAT. We will continue to monitor developments from the College Board and continue to apprise families of any significant modifications to the SAT.
A Shorter Test: The digital SAT is slated to be shortened in length by 33 percent—for approximately 2 hours of total testing, down from 3 hours for the current test. Although specific section lengths have not yet been announced, slides from a College Board PowerPoint suggest at least a 32 minute reading/writing section and a 35 minute math section (in addition to other sections). Students will no doubt react favorably to this condensed format.
‘Adaptive’ Testing: The Math and Reading/Writing sections will each feature two tested sections. Based on a student’s performance on the first section of each, an algorithm will determine the difficulty level for the next section. According to the College Board, this ultimately allows a score to be arrived at more efficiently. This proposed format is similar to the current GRE exam for graduate school admissions.
Calculator Usage: All math sections on the new test will allow for calculator usage (one math section on the current SAT prohibits use of a calculator). Students will be allowed to either bring their own calculator to the test or use one built into the testing application. (We will likely recommend students bring their own calculator, rather than tinker with what is likely to be a cumbersome laptop/tablet application.)
Faster Scores: Scores from the digital test will be returned in less time than scores for the current version of the test. Specific turnaround times have not been announced (scores are currently returned to students in about two weeks).
Reading Comprehension Section: Reading passages will be shorter, “with one question tied to each [passage],” according to the College Board. This did seem to be contradicted by an online sample test, however, which featured four questions pertaining to a David Foster Wallace short story.
Timer: Students will have the option of displaying a testing timer, revealing exactly how much time is remaining on any given section.
The Essay (Possibly) Returns: It appears that the SAT essay is back, according to an online sample test posted by the College Board. We agreed with the College Board’s decision last year to eliminate the essay (https://www.odysseytutors.com/post/what-college-board-s-subject-test-essay-announcement-really-means) and are disappointed in its decision to apparently renege on its removal.
What Stays the Same
Scoring: The test will continue to be scored on a 400-1600 point scale.
Content Consistency: Even though the test is an hour shorter, the College Board has maintained that the “test content” itself has not changed. This presumably includes math concepts tested and grammatical concepts tested within the writing section. However, this does seem to be contradicted by the College Board’s announcement that it is modifying reading passages. Passages on the reading section will “reflect a wider range of topics” than current passages, according to the digital SAT press release.
Multiple Choice/Grid-in Questions: The test will continue to feature both multiple choice questions out of 4 answers, in addition to "grid-in" questions on the math section where students must type in the correct answer.
On-Site Testing: Students will need to take the test in a school or testing center with a proctor present. At-home testing will not be offered.
Formulas Provided: Math formulas will be provided to students on the math sections. These appear to be identical to the formulas now provided to students on the paper test.
Nuts and Bolts The College Board will allow students to either use their own device (laptop or tablet), or a school-issued device for testing. The College Board has also stated that the digital test “allows every student to receive a unique test form,” reducing opportunities for cheating. The digital format is also likely to give schools more control over when they administer the test. The current testing calendar—seven times a year—is likely to give way to a larger, less uniform number of testing dates. The College Board has also said publicly that it hopes schools will offer the test during school days.
Final Thoughts The recent trend towards test-optional admissions policies has forced the College Board into survival mode. With these proposed changes, the organization appears to be making a concerted effort to keep the SAT relevant in college admissions. The most significant change—a test formerly 3 hours in length now shortened to 2—we are generally supportive of, provided the test is thorough enough to still make it a useful assessment. After the College Board’s announcement, eyes will now turn to Iowa and the folks at the ACT. The ACT does currently offer a digital ACT, although it is identical in length and content to its current paper test. Will the ACT alter its digital test in light of the College Board’s announcement? And could it respond with an even more aggressive rollout of its new format than the College Board’s own timetable? We will continue to monitor announcements from the ACT and College Board as these digital tests evolve, and will continue to inform parents, students, and other stakeholders about any further changes in either content or format.