The Digital SAT

Here are all the important facts about the new, digital SAT.

Who will the digital SAT affect?

The digital SAT will roll out in 2024 (likely March of 2024), so the new test will only impact students who are currently in freshman year of high school and younger (because current freshmen will be juniors in March of 2024). Granted, quite a few juniors actually finish with the SAT and ACT before March of their junior year (as long as they start prep in June after their sophomore year — June of 2023 in this case), so some of the current freshmen still won’t have to worry about the change to the SAT.

What will the structure be?

  • Verbal section
  • Math section
  • Adapted Verbal Section
  • Adapted Math Section

What is changing?

Much has been said about how the test is getting shorter (instead of 3 hours, it will only be 2 hours). But that is not the primary change. The test will, of course, be digital (and scores will come back faster as a result). But that again is not the largest change. So what is? The new SAT will be section adaptive — that’s how the new test will be able to be shorter but, at least theoretically, provide equally accurate or even more accurate results. The content is more or less staying the same, though students will be allowed to use calculators on both Math sections (currently students cannot use a calculator on one of the two Math sections).

What is section adaptive testing?

Adaptive testing is designed to decrease the number of questions that a student needs to complete while providing similar or better accuracy in scoring. Here’s how that works: Most students end up answering a lot of questions that add nothing to an understanding of their knowledge and skill level. It’s a waste of time for very strong students to have to complete all the “easy” and “medium” difficulty questions just to get to the “hard” ones (and they might make a silly mistake on an easy one that unnecessarily throws off their score). Just give them the hard questions. Similarly, why give a struggling student 60 Math questions and have 2/3 of those questions be above their ability level to answer correctly? Then the student will just guess for the remaining questions and will even have unnecessary small swings in their scores from random guessing. Enter adaptive testing: students get more of the questions at and around their ability level so that the test can hone in on their ability level without giving them questions that are needlessly too hard or too easy for them.

Here’s how it will work:

Students will take a section — let’s say a Math section and that the student gets 15 out of 20 questions correct. Based on that first section, the system will estimate that the student’s score is around a 650 (out of 800), but the student’s real score might be as low as 550 or as high as 750 — so far the student has only done one of two Math sections, so the system needs more questions to determine with greater certainty what the student’s true score is. Instead of giving the student a random assortment of easy, medium, and hard questions on the next Math section, the second section will be adapted based on the student’s performance on the first section: on the second section, the student will then only get Math questions that fall in the difficulty level of that student’s expected score from 550 to 750 (so no overly easy or overly hard questions that are outside the student’s projected ability level).

Pros to the Digital Version

  • Faster scoring: Yes, it’s nice to get your scores faster, but the real benefit of faster scoring comes from knowing sooner if you have to re-take the test. Currently, it takes about 2 weeks or more to get scores back, so sometimes students take a break from prep (and start forgetting what they learned and practiced) only to find out that they still need to increase more and need to resume prep. Those breaks add up. As detailed here, students who do not take breaks end up with 50% larger score increases than those who do (those who do not take breaks end up with about 50% more prep because they didn’t take breaks). So faster results mean better information on retaking the test and continuing prep, and better information and less lag time lead to higher scores.
  • Security of the tests: Leaked tests are a huge problem. Larger than the SAT often admits. With millions of paper copies of exams going out all over the world, it’s not surprising that just a few bad actors would leak those tests online. And leaked tests lead to cheaters getting higher scores. Not anymore though. There won’t even be one test to copy, even in digital form, because each test adapts to each student’s performance. This is a massive win for the integrity and validity of the tests.
  • Equity: The number of practice tests for the digital SAT is going to drop dramatically. Currently, it’s fairly easy to find a plethora of official past SATs online to practice from. But there will not be many digital SATs provided to practice on (the GRE, for instance, which administers an adaptive digital test, only has two official practice tests). So, a student can still prep for the content tested on the digital SAT, but all students will be on a more level playing field as far as practice taking the digital test.
  • Shorter: To be honest, even though this has grabbed the headlines, this is minor. Sure, everyone wants to take a shorter test, but, especially for ambitious students, I can’t see this being a deciding factor between taking the SAT and ACT. For students better suited to taking the SAT, it is nice that for them the test will be shorter.

Cons to the Digital Version

  • It’s digital: Why would anyone prefer to take a test on the computer over one on paper? They wouldn’t. Just ask the international students who take the ACT (the ACT is only given in digital form internationally). All of them would rather take it on paper. With a digital version, yes, you don’t need to fill out a scantron (and bubbling one in is a legitimate annoyance). But that is so minor. People prefer a tangible test to write on, read, underline, etc.
  • It’s adaptive: So, this is a pro and a con. The pro is that it’s shorter, but the con is that it’s more pressure. On the current test, each question has equal weight. Not so on an adaptive test. The questions in the first section have dramatically more weight than the questions in the second section because performance in the first section determines the difficulty of the questions that a student will receive in the second section. So the trade-off is: shorter test but more pressure. Personally, I would opt for an hour longer test with less pressure, but certainly some people would prefer the hour shorter test with more pressure.
  • Uncertainty: The last time the SAT changed (in March of 2016) it took them a few years to normalize the quality of their tests. The first few tests were… bad. More subjective questions, more inconsistent curves, etc. Honestly they really didn’t get the quality of the tests up to par until around 2019. And now, already, they are changing the test again. Granted, because the content is not expected to appreciably change, there may be no adjustment period. But, I’m going to steer my students clear of the digital test when it first comes out so that we’re not risking our scores on a test that may or may not be able to capture their knowledge, skills, hard work, and potential (or, more likely, I’ll recommend that my students take the test to see how it goes — maybe it will go very well for them — but we won’t put all of our eggs in the unknown, digital SAT basket).

What should you do?

If you have a student who is a freshman in high school, you can expect to prepare them to take the ACT in junior year. For parents with students in 8th grade or below, we’ll see what happens: if there are a surprising number of digital practice tests, if the shorter test allows students to perform significantly better, if the quality of the tests is good from the start, etc, then the SAT could be the preferable option (prior to March of 2016, the SAT was a better test than the ACT — only since March of 2016 has the current SAT been of lower quality than the ACT). But we have plenty of time to see what happens.

In the meantime, students can do what they could always do: keep working hard in school and keep reading and working hard over the summer to gain an advantage.

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