No more filling in bubbles or waiting for proctors to collect the exam sheets: The SAT is going digital, among other modifications.
These changes won’t happen overnight, however. Students taking the test internationally will be the first ones introduced to the new format in 2023, followed by a 2024 launch in the United States.
“We’ve been hearing feedback from students and educators about what it’s like to take the SAT and what it’s like to give students the SAT,” says Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments at the College Board, a nonprofit that develops the SAT and other standardized tests and curricula. “And some of the rigidity, stress and the length of the test, we could only make those kinds of changes going digital.”
What Is the SAT?
The SAT is a multiple-choice exam aimed at predicting “college readiness” among high school students. Many colleges and universities look at students’ scores in addition to their grades, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters and essays to determine admissions decisions.
“You aren’t your ACT or SAT score, you are more than that,” says Sal Khan, founder and chief executive officer of Khan Academy, a nonprofit education company. “I think if you talk to any college admissions counselor, they would also agree with that. (But) in a world where every school has different grading systems … a test like the SAT at least gives a signal for readiness to do college-level work.”
Some schools are moving away from weighing standardized test scores heavily in the admissions process. Many students experienced barriers to test-taking due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And there have been well-documented racial disparities in testing outcomes, which many say widen college access gaps. For the class of 2020, nearly 60% of white students hit the college readiness benchmark in math, while less than one-quarter of Black students and one-third of Hispanic or Latino students did the same, the nonprofit Brookings Institute reported.
More than 1,800 four-year colleges announced plans to go test-optional for fall 2022, according to FairTest, an advocacy group.
Aside from a new digital format, other adjustments to the SAT include a shortened test, allowance of graphing calculators throughout the math portion and faster results.
“Overall, I think it’s a great change and is meeting students where they are at,” says Ross Lingle, career counselor and teacher at Whitefish High School in Montana. “Colleges are going more test-optional so I think it’s helping to keep the SAT relevant and making it more approachable.”
Despite an overhaul, the SAT will remain on a 1,600-point scale and continue to test skills related to the three subject areas of reading, writing and math.
Here are some of the most important forthcoming changes for the SAT:
The new digital test will be adaptive, which changes the level of question difficulty for subsequent questions based on a student’s performance. This improves testing security, Rodriguez says.
Though it’s digital, it is not a take-home exam. Tests will continue to be offered during the school day or over the weekend, under the watchful eye of a proctor. But now, students can bring their own laptop or tablet, use a school-issued device or borrow a device provided by the College Board.
Additionally, the digital test is designed to ensure that students won’t lose their work in the event of a broadband issue or power outage.
Shortened test day
From start to finish, the whole test day will be shorter for both students and educators.
The length of the exam will be reduced from three hours to two. And due to the digital format, proctors will no longer have to deal with packing, organizing and shipping test materials.
Questions are also going to be more concise. For instance, lengthy reading passages are set to be replaced with shorter versions. Only one question, rather than multiple, will be tied to each reading.
“We still want students to have rich texts that they need to read, understand, analyze and answer questions about,” Rodriguez says. “But these walls of texts were not going to work on a digital device.”
Authorized use of calculators
The current SAT divides the math section into two parts: a noncalculator and a calculator portion. But as part of the recent changes, a calculator is now allowed for the entire math segment.
Students can either bring their own graphing calculator or use one that’s embedded into the exam, which experts say reduces test day barriers. Not every student is able to afford a graphing calculator as average prices range from $100 to $200, though some cost less.
Expedited score results
Rather than waiting weeks to get results, students will receive score reports from the digital tests in a matter of days.
Reports have typically included percentile rankings and a breakdown of a student’s score. They’ve also provided information about four-year colleges and scholarship opportunities. Under the new format, the College Board plans to expand that to include resources about local community colleges, workforce training and career options, Rodriguez says.
Impact of the SAT Changes
With the SAT being considered a “high stakes” exam, many students feel pressure to perform well. But in a November pilot launch of the digital version, 80% of participants found the new format to be “less stressful” than the paper test, according to the College Board.
“What I hope and want is for students to be able to come in and just focus on demonstrating what they’ve learned and what they can do in the core reading, writing and math areas,” Rodriguez says. “And (to) have a lot of the stress around the test, the rigidity, the policies, all melt away.”
Stress is not the only barrier to the exam. The SAT has long faced criticism around equity. Costs related to registration can limit a student’s ability to retake the test to achieve a higher score. And while some students can afford high-priced SAT tutoring courses to prepare, many take the exam with much less practice and guidance.
The College Board implemented free preparation resources, fee waivers and weekday testing to mitigate some of these issues over the years. But as the SAT moves online, experts are divided on whether the new changes will address testing access and inequities.
Given that most K-12 schools spent many months online due to COVID-19, students around the country became more familiar with learning and taking exams digitally. But there are still students who might perform better on paper, says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, an education consulting company.
“Something that we don’t know fully is what accommodations will look like for students who have learning challenges,” she says. “There’s still some question marks about how exactly these new changes will impact students overall.”
Some experts predict that the digital format could improve access due to the time reduction, supplied devices and tools, as well as potential flexibility with test dates.
“For students in rural areas, like ours, we’ve had a pretty big decrease in testing opportunities,” Lingle says. “Part of that is the length of the old test and the challenge of the administration, like the number of hours it takes to prepare and get to the testing facility. It turns off testing supervisors … With the shorter administration and less paper to package and account for, I think there’s going to be more opportunities for students to take it in their area.”
Other experts are hesitant, saying it’s too early to tell how the changes will affect individual students and address existing race gaps.
How to Prepare
Experts urge students to take either the SAT or ACT, if possible, despite a rise in test-optional policies at colleges across the country.
“If you take the SAT or ACT and are not pleased with your scores, then exercise your test-optional right to not submit them,” says Robert Franek, editor-in-chief at the Princeton Review, a college-admissions service company. “But if they are valuable to you and they could be a differentiator in your college application, then submit them. If you never take the test, you’ll never be able to make that choice as you’re applying to college.”
Students have several options to prepare for the test, including national test preparation companies, private tutors and self-guided online resources. Khan Academy, for example, offers free practice exams, videos and testing strategies on its website.
As the date to launch gets closer, the College Board plans to release practice tests for students to experience the new digital format and tools.
“Run, don’t walk to their website to look at what they are offering and take those practice tests (once they are released),” says Joey Radu, master tutor at Ivywise. “In the interim, there is an option to take a computer-based practice test of the ACT for students who are curious about what it’s like to take one of these tests on the computer … But otherwise, for now, it’s mostly hold tight because there’s still a lot of uncertainty.”