The First Digital SAT

Table of Contents

December 2nd marked the end of an era in college entrance exams. For the first time in its 97-year history (first given in 1926), the SAT will no longer be administered as a paper exam. The next SAT, which will be administered in March of 2024, will be digital, adaptive, and altogether quite different. Here’s how the test is changing and whether those changes are beneficial.

Article Summary: The SAT is changing for the better. The ACT still holds the advantage (for now). But, if a student significantly runs out of time on the ACT, then take a mock test of the digital SAT to see if a switch to that test would be beneficial.

Changes

  • Digital
    • Students will download the CollegeBoard Bluebook app onto their computer or tablet and bring their devices in on test day to take the test (alternatively, schools can provide students with devices).
  • Adaptive
    • The first Verbal section will have easy, medium, and hard questions. If a student does well, the second Verbal section will only have medium and hard questions. If a student does not do as well, then the second Verbal section will only have easy and medium questions and a student with this easier route of questions will only be able to achieve a maximum score of roughly 650 (out of 800) on the Verbal section. The same goes for the Math section: standard first section and then an adapted second section depending on a student’s performance on the first. By adapting to a student’s performance, the SAT can provide an equally accurate assessment with fewer questions and in less time because the test doesn’t waste a student’s time on the second Verbal and Math sections with more questions that are too easy or too hard for them.
  • Shorter
    • Roughly 2 hours instead of 3 hours.
  • Short reading passages
    • Previously, students had to read long passages (roughly 750 words) and complete 10-11 questions on those passages. Now, students will read one short passage (on average about 100 words) and complete just one question on the passage. The next question will then have a new short passage and a new question. This change, however, does not mean the Verbal section is easier; instead, it means that the Verbal section is now testing a different skill (reading a short text extremely closely rather than understanding the main idea in a long text).
  • New types of reading questions
    • Instead of asking students to just answer questions about fiction, science, and historical reading passages, the SAT now has new question types, such as asking students to read over bullet points of information and use that information to make a compelling case for a given audience. For example, there might be information about an author and the question could ask, “Which answer choice best conveys the impact of the author’s work to an audience unfamiliar with the author’s work?” Students need to be able to read over the provided information and identify which information will accomplish the given task for the stated audience — a key writing skill to learn.
  • Calculator usage
    • Previously, a calculator was allowed on only one of the two Math sections. Now a calculator is allowed on both. But the biggest change is actually that the SAT is now giving students access to a very powerful computer calculator called Desmos. To be honest, most tutors suspect that the SAT literally does not know how useful this calculator is on the test (it can graph a sizable percentage of function questions and solve those questions without the student really understanding anything). It’s possible (likely?) that Collegeboard will eventually either have to limit the capabilities of Desmos or design questions that cannot be so easily solved using it.
  • Weighted questions
    • Previously, each question whether easy or hard had the same impact on a student’s score. Now, getting a hard question correct raises a student’s score more than getting an easy question correct; getting an easy question wrong hurts a student’s score more than getting a hard question wrong. People will almost inevitably read too much into this change. (Here is a very deep dive on if there is any exploitable strategy to this weighted grading; to save you time: there isn’t one.) The only thing worth mentioning here is that students should be a little more careful not to make silly mistakes on the easy questions.
  • Vocabulary
    • Tutors are dusting off their vocab lists. The last time the SAT was vocab heavy was prior to 2016. (the digital SAT is not returning vocabulary to its prior prominence but more to a middle ground of importance).

Are these changes good or bad?

Most changes are roughly neutral: digital, shorter reading passages, new question types, weighted questions, and vocabulary. Others are beneficial: a shorter test (because it’s adaptive) and an integrated Desmos calculator allowed on both math sections.

A change not in the bullet points (or publicized by Collegeboard) is that the questions appear to be higher quality questions than the prior SAT (which was administered from 2016-2023).

On the prior SAT, there were reading questions on which I disagreed with the SAT’s answers. That had almost never happened prior to 2016 on the SAT and has virtually never happened on any ACT or any other standardized test (the GRE, GMAT, etc) that I have prepared students for. It was difficult for high-achieving students in particular to have to pick the “best” answer to a few questions when they could make a good case that a word or two in the best answer invalidated that answer and thus none of the answers should technically be correct. In short, some of the correct answers seemed like a stretch.

From the four official practice tests released thus far for the digital SAT, those ambiguous answers have been eliminated. I am back to fully agreeing with all of the SAT’s answers. In short, the test feels more fair precisely because all the answers on the Verbal section are more clearly and justifiably correct or incorrect.

Should students switch to digital SAT prep?

Maybe, but probably not. I can’t say a bad thing about the changes (well, as long as administering the test goes well, and that might have some problems: at most schools, students will bring their own computers and tablets, so some students’ devices could run out of battery in the middle of the test, tech issues might occur, etc). But, theoretically, as long as the testing experience goes well (and it will for most students and especially as schools get used to administering it), then all the content and format changes are either neutral or beneficial. To be honest, I love the new SAT. I like the format, the content, everything. I think it’s likely that a year from now most Summit Prep students will prep for the SAT over the ACT (prior to 2016, most of our students prepared for the SAT; then the SAT changed — and got worse — and most of our students have been preparing for the ACT ever since — if you’re interested, read more below this post on why the ACT became more advantageous for most students).

There are, however, two significant drawbacks to currently preparing for the digital SAT: uncertainty and lack of authentic content.

Uncertainty

The last time the SAT changed (in 2016) the Collegeboard released four official practice tests in advance of the change. These four practice tests, however, were not perfect replicas of what the actual scores or actual content on the new SAT looked like when it launched, and there were some very difficult Math questions on these practice tests — questions of that difficulty never made it into the real test when it launched. Similarly, the Collegeboard has released four practice tests ahead of the digital SAT launch. And, similarly, some of those questions are far more difficult than any questions that have been on real SATs. Will the digital SAT, in a departure from the past, have questions of that remarkable difficulty? Maybe.

One difference with this launch is that the Collegeboard has essentially been practicing with the test on international students — all students outside the U.S. have taken the digital, adaptive SAT since March of this year (2023). From the experience of our international students, we are pleasantly surprised that the digital SAT practice tests do seem to very closely mimic the real digital SATs.

But, it’s possible that questions of remarkable difficulty will (as they were in the past) be removed from the test before the launch of the digital SAT in the U.S. in March.

For now, uncertainty surrounding how well the practice tests will predict real digital SAT scores and content is a factor to consider. I want to leave as little to chance as possible when it comes to outcomes (and there is already variability in outcomes simply due to how a student will perform on that given day, how well the content on that test will match their content knowledge, and whether the error in the curve will be relatively large or small and beneficial or detrimental). More certainty is always beneficial because, either way, you can better prepare.

Lack of authentic content

The experience of our international students, however, has made me increasingly optimistic that the practice tests represent what the actual digital SAT will look like when launched in the U.S.

If that turns out to be the case, the primary remaining disadvantage to significantly increasing in score on the digital SAT is the fact that there are only four authentic digital practice tests.

That is not a lot.

And, as anyone will tell you, third-party content providers have never been able to successfully copy the quality of real SATs or ACTs (because the test makers put many millions of dollars into designing and rigorously testing their exams, and no third-party providers could match that investment and testing). And that was when the SAT was a paper, non-adaptive, and unweighted question test.

But, never doubt human ingenuity.

Despite my doubts that a third-party provider would be able to mimic the real test, I am happy that I was not entirely correct. We have now vetted the exams from every available third-party digital SAT platform, and, while most platforms did indeed have low-quality questions, we found three that mimic the quality of the real questions very well (and we have partnered with the one with the best quality and the best platform so that our students have access to those tests). Granted, even those top three platforms do not (and probably will never) have scoring that is as accurate as the real SAT (an adaptive test with weighted questions is incredibly hard to build). But, at least the questions accurately reflect the real test questions so that our students get more practice with a digital, adaptive test with high-quality questions.

ACT or Digital SAT?

Students who have not done so already should take both a mock ACT and mock digital SAT (we recommend that students take SAT #4 from the Bluebook App because, in our opinion, that test more accurately reflects the content and scoring that our international students have seen on the real test thus far). The ACT still has an advantage because it hasn’t changed, there is much more authentic content available, and it’s a consistent test. But, if a student does significantly better on the mock digital SAT, then I would choose the digital SAT over the ACT.

If a student is interested in taking or switching to the SAT, feel free to reach out to us anytime — we’re always happy to help.

We have been preparing international students for the test since it launched for those international students in March of this year, we have a curriculum derived from the released test questions that allows us to target a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and we have partnered with the best digital SAT platform to provide our students with the highest-quality content. We will also be running a digital SAT class from 12/31-3/2 (you can register here) that will be taught by Patrick Kennedy, who is a preeminent expert on the digital SAT. He has written more practice questions for the Verbal section of the digital SAT than probably any other individual in the world, and his content is licensed in books and digital SAT platforms and — of course — used by Summit Prep.

And, if you have any questions at all about the SAT, ACT, other standardized tests, or school admissions in general, then we are always happy to talk with you about the best plan for your child’s success.

Background: Prior to 2016, most Summit Prep students prepared for the SAT because it had two very significant inherent advantages: almost all colleges superscored SAT results (and at that time fewer colleges did so for the ACT) and 40% of the reading section score (which was 1/3 of the whole test) was primarily testing vocabulary (so students could very significantly raise their scores just from memorizing lots of words). After 2016, the quality of the questions declined, the curves at the high end of the scale became very volatile (and the scoring was redone so that there was actually less room at the high end of the scale to differentiate between the highest performing students), and vocabulary was very dramatically de-emphasized. Because of those changes, it then became easier for high achieving students to score higher on the ACT: it is a consistent and known test, the questions are difficult to complete within the allotted time but are much more straightforward, and students can delete ACT scores for free at any time so that decrease in test day pressure helps students perform better. Between 2016 and 2023, most Summit Prep students have prepared for the ACT. But, as long as the digital SAT delivers what it indicates that it will, then I anticipate most of our students will prepare for the SAT in subsequent years. Either way, we will evaluate which test fits a student best and guide them toward the test that offers them the best chance of the highest possible score.

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