College Board Announces Digital SAT

This Tuesday, the College Board made an announcement about changing the format of their test. You may have seen a few news articles (like this one) about it already. I wanted to share a few thoughts and answer a few questions you may have about the changes.

If you want to read about all the details yourself, I recommend you read the official College Board release.

If you don’t, here are the main takeaways.

The SAT is digital now: what does that mean?

The SAT conducted a pilot program for a fully digital test last year and it went well, with 80% of students saying they found it less stressful than the longer paper version.

They decided to commit to the digital version of the test entirely, and will stop offering the paper version of the test. Internationally, this will happen in 2023, and in the US, 2024.

The digital SAT is not just the old paper SAT on a computer. It’s different in a few ways:

  • It’s shorter, only about 2 hours long (they’ve cut each section by a substantial amount)
  • Calculators are allowed throughout
  • Reading passages are much shorter, with only one question per passage (this is a huge change, previously there were 90-line passages and 10+ questions per passage)
  • The test is adaptive, meaning the questions you see later will depend on your performance in the earlier parts of the test.

There are a few more changes to the test itself, but none are exciting enough to mention here. I have seen a few questions from parents already that I will share below. I’ve also added a few of my own to fill in some gaps.

Digital SAT: Questions from parents

In all likelihood, it doesn’t. If you’re preparing for the SAT now, you won’t see any of these changes (since they won’t come to the States until 2024). If you’re in 9th grade or younger, this might affect you… if you take the SAT over the ACT. I’ll be furiously gathering data between now and 2024 to see how these changes affect my test recommendations.

Bafflingly, no. The test will still be administered at a school or a test center.

At least two publicly stated reasons: it’s easier to administer (scored by computer, way faster) and it’s easier for students to take.

I can think of a few reasons they wouldn’t say out loud, too—such as ease of access and a shorter test being more competitive with the ACT, a good way to shake some inequity complaints, and because an adaptive test is much harder to cheat on.

Strangely, they didn’t say anything about the test being better at assessing a student’s aptitude, which is a big talking point for the GMAT’s adaptive approach.

It’s a lot less fancy than it sounds. In practice, there will be three sets of questions per topic: an easy set, a medium set, and a hard set. You’ll get the medium set to start, and if you do well you’ll get the hard set next. If you don’t do well on the medium set, you’ll get the easy set. The harder questions are worth more points, and the easy ones are worth less. It’s simple but effective.

Yeah they totally did, and dropped the ball. Will this be the same? Probably not. They have much more experience with digital testing now, and they’ve actually had the time to develop something, while in 2020 they were just improvising (along with the rest of the world!)

Absolutely. The GMAT has been offered in this format for a long time, and it’s crazy that it took the SAT this long to go digital. And even now, they’ve fallen short of the mark—not allowing at-home testing is a mistake, in my opinion. I’m sure that’s coming, too—just not sure when.

The SAT and the ACT are in a unique position in the world of standardized testing in that they are in direct competition with one another. No other tests do this. That means they’re in a perpetual arms race to offer a more convenient, more impressive test. The ACT already has plans to offer a digital test, but delayed their plans due to COVID-19. I’m certain they will respond with a similar digital platform.

The timeline, however, is uncertain. The SAT has a tendency to reinvent itself often (twice in the past 20 years), and every time it does, the ACT’s market share increases, as students are unwilling to be lab rats for the new version of the SAT.

I would expect the ACT to ride that wave for a year or two before offering a fully digital experience like the SAT. These companies are businesses, after all. But there’s no denying that the future of testing is digital, and the ACT will need to catch up at some point.

I’m so glad you asked. So it seems to me like the SAT must be acutely aware of what separates it from the ACT (that is: more difficult reading passages emphasizing full-passage comprehension, a no-calculator math section with questions that emphasize cerebral/theoretical understanding of math concepts, and math questions that test multiple concepts at once instead of one at a time).

No one is privy to all the changes yet, but it seems to me that all of these changes are made to deliberately reduce the differences between the two tests. Shorter, one-question reading passages feels different from the ACT, but actually tests a reading comprehension skill (sentence-level comprehension, no focus on theme) that the ACT specializes in. A full-calculator math section seems to imply more of a focus on practical, real-world math, focusing on computation instead of theory.

This is really interesting to me, because it means they’re philosophically copying the ACT (in the sense that they’re testing the same skills as the ACT) while aesthetically distancing themselves from the ACT (much shorter test time, different-looking passages)—an interesting contradiction. Why are they doing this? I’ll turn again to economics: I think it makes good business sense. They’re offering something that appears to be different, shiny, new, exciting—while relying under the surface on what’s been proven to work. Interesting move from the College Board. We’ll see how it plays out for them.

I’m sure I missed a few questions in there, so if you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask them. I’m always available to chat about test prep and the best choice for your student. You can schedule a time to talk here, or contact me via email with any questions you have.