The SAT is Going Digital

The SAT is Going Digital

The SAT has been around for so long that it is ingrained in American academic culture. Students, parents, and educators alike recognize its purpose and importance, and many colleges still rely on it as a measure for evaluating applicants.

Although the SAT continues to endure, it has undergone a significant number of changes in the century since the College Board first started using it to determine which high school students were qualified to attend college. Perhaps no change will be quite as significant as the one recently announced by the College Board: the SAT will be going digital by 2024. It’s a decision driven by the desire to make the SAT more accessible to students and for the SAT to remain relevant in an era where colleges no longer value it in the way they once did. 

When Covid-19 forced schools to temporarily close their doors in 2020, many colleges and universities suspended their requirements that applicants submit SAT (or ACT) scores. Two years later, only a handful of schools have reinstated those requirements. However, many colleges had already been making the submission of test scores optional on applications even before the pandemic.

Despite this trend and the multiple test cancellations due to Covid, many students have continued to take the SAT and chosen to submit their scores to prospective schools. Priscilla Rodriguez, the College Board’s vice president of college readiness assessments, affirmed the College Board’s commitment to preserve students’ freedom to submit scores: “Evidence shows that when colleges consider SAT scores in the context of where students live and go to school, the SAT helps increase diversity. As we emerge from the pandemic, the SAT will remain one of the most accessible and affordable ways for students to distinguish themselves.”

Is the SAT online now?

Part of the lasting legacy of the SAT is the practice of shading bubbles on an answer sheet with a No. 2 pencil. That’s all going to change over the next two years.

While the new format of the SAT will be digital, it will not be accessible from just anywhere. The new version is not an online SAT where students can take it at their own convenience from any location they so choose. Rather, it will still be administered at either schools on weekdays or designated testing facilities on weekends. 

This isn’t the first time the SAT has been adjusted

The College Board’s decision to create a new digital test is in line with adjustments the company has made to the SAT Suite of Assessments over the past decade or so. In addition to the SAT, the College Board offers the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). The PSAT is a shorter version of the SAT that is given to students in 8th, 9th, or 10th grades. For the last several years, the College Board has been offering most items in its Suite of Assessments in digital format.

In 2010, the College Board introduced the SAT School Day program in an effort to increase access to the test for low-income students. Although the program took a while to catch on, 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) are now contracted with the College Board to administer the SAT for free to high school juniors. Some states require the SAT and use it as a standardized assessment, while other states offer the test on school days to give opportunities to those students who may not have access to the funds or transportation to take it on a Saturday. Many of the states that offer the School Day SAT are already using a digital version of the current test. 

The SAT coming in 2024 is not new merely because of its switch from paper-based to digital delivery, however. It will also feature a number of changes in design and format aimed at making the questions more concise and straightforward. 

Didn’t the College Board just make big changes to the test?

Everyone is trying to keep up with the changes that the College Board has enacted in the last two decades, and the parents of today’s students may not realize just how different the test is from what they experienced.

After finally permitting calculators and introducing student-produced (i.e., not multiple-choice) questions in 1994, the College Board shifted its emphasis to writing in 2005. In order to reflect the importance of clear and effective writing, an essay was added where students responded to a topic by writing and defending a thesis. The scoring system was changed from 1600 to 2400 total points: 800 for Reading, 800 for Math, and 800 for Writing.

The new format didn’t last long, though. Driven by the vision of David Coleman, who became CEO in 2012, the College Board sought to create a test that better reflected the actual work students were doing in high school. Frustrated with the way students had been able to raise their scores using test-taking “tricks,” Coleman declared, “We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers.”

In 2016, the College Board discarded its old format and became more of a college-readiness test than an intelligence test.

  • Instead of having multiple short sections for each subject, the new test went to four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, No Calculator Math, and Calculator Math.
  • Vocabulary questions—perhaps the last vestige of an intelligence test—were eliminated, with all the questions in the Reading section now relating to passages provided in the test.
  • The scoring returned to the familiar 1600-point format, with 800 points in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (combination of the Reading and the Writing and Language sections) and 800 points in Math (combination of both Math sections).
  • The essay was overhauled, but it was made optional: students would have to sign up in advance to take it, and essay scores would be separate from the rest of the test. By 2021, the essay was dropped from the test altogether, although some states continue to include it as part of their own assessment purposes.

What kind of changes are being made to the SAT itself?

While considerable changes are being made to the SAT, some things will remain unaltered. In an official video statement, Priscilla Rodriguez said, “The digital SAT Suite will continue to measure the knowledge and skills that students are learning in school and that matter most for college and career readiness.” The test will be administered only at a school or test center (not at home), and free practice material will still be available online through Khan Academy.

Because the College Board is committed to making the test accessible to all students, special accommodations are available to students who need them. The familiar 1600-point scoring scale will remain in place, with student scores still linked to important scholarship opportunities. 

So, what exactly is changing about the SAT?

  • In the Reading section, the long passages with 10-11 questions apiece will be replaced by shorter passages with just one question tied to each. The passages themselves will reflect a wider range of topics intended to represent the material students read in college.
  • Math questions will be less wordy, and calculators will be permitted on the entire Math section. A calculator app based on the online Desmos calculator will be provided, although students will still be allowed to bring their own SAT-approved calculator. 

Everything the College Board is doing with the digital design is aimed at making the test more user-friendly, from timing to navigation. With the length of the SAT shortened from three hours to about two, students will have more time to answer each question. The digital test will also be equipped with an on-screen timer and a feature for flagging questions to review. Students will receive their scores in a matter of days instead of weeks, with their score reports now connecting them with local two-year colleges, workforce training programs, and career options.

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Why such a significant change at this time?

Regardless of how colleges have adjusted their perspective on test scores on students’ applications, the SAT continues to be essential. Even when schools went test-optional in 2020 and SATs were often canceled due to Covid, a significant number of students wanted to take the test.

Students want the option of submitting SAT scores to colleges

According to a survey administered by the College Board, 83% of students say they want the option of submitting their scores to colleges.

In response to the escalating trend of colleges making the SAT optional, Priscilla Rodriguez observed that the students themselves continue to view SAT scores as a helpful addition to their applications: “Some students may decide their application is stronger without test scores, while others will benefit from sending them, including the hundreds of thousands of rural, first-generation, and underrepresented students whose SAT scores strengthen their college applications.”

An online test makes the SAT accessible to more students

Since the SAT is going digital, more students will be able to take the test. That benefits not only students, but also the College Board, which seeks to stay relevant in an academic culture that increasingly views the SAT as an optional element of college applications. With the new digital test significantly shorter than the current one, the SAT will be easier to administer. Rather than being restricted by a fixed schedule, states, districts, and schools will have more options for when, where, and how often they administer the SAT. 

With some schools are already offering digital versions of the SAT and PSAT, the progression toward digital application is already underway. The new design will first be launched on a large scale in March 2023 with the International SAT. By Fall 2023, all PSAT exams will transition to the new digital form. Beginning in March 2024, then entire SAT Suite of Assessments will be accessible digitally in the revised format.

How will the new SAT be more accessible?

Noticing that most students already do a significant portion of their schoolwork on digital devices, the College Board has been focused on students’ access to technology and SAT prep materials. Official practice tests will be available for free through Khan Academy, so students can have access without having to spend money on expensive supplies or prep programs.

Many students practice for the SAT on their own devices, so taking the actual test on those same devices will feel more comfortable than answering questions on paper. The SAT itself will be made available to students on their own laptop or tablet through a secure server. If anyone doesn’t have a device on test day or their school doesn’t have any devices available, the College Board will provide one for them. And if Wi-Fi drops or a device dies, students will be able to plug in and reconnect without losing any time or work.

What are the main benefits of the SAT changes?

In November 2021, the College Board conducted a global pilot of the new SAT in U.S. and international test centers. Students, educators, and test proctors alike overwhelmingly endorsed the test, praising both its improved design and simplified method of delivery. 

The test will be more efficient

To start with, the preliminary procedures are more efficient than what currently exists. Without the need for physical copies of tests, educators will no longer have to deal with packing, sorting, or shipping test materials, and students will not have to spend time checking in and filling out paper forms. All the necessary materials are provided, so students won’t have to worry about remembering to bring pencils or a calculator, or even a digital device. 

The test will be more convenient

Student feedback about the test itself was especially encouraging. “Having it online digitally is more convenient,” as students were able to navigate between the questions, online calculator, and formula sheet. The built-in clock made it much easier to keep track of time remaining: “This reduced my stress as I knew I had enough time to think critically about the question rather than panicking and choosing a random option when I was unsure of what I had just read.”

Students definitely appreciated the feature enabling them to flag questions for review: “I loved that I could go back to questions that I had flagged, since usually on paper I take extra time to find the questions I had missed.” And test-takers found the answering process to be much more efficient than what is required on the paper-and-pencil test: “Having the ability to simply mark my answer swiftly with confidence was incredibly relieving.”

The test will be more streamlined

The praise continued when it came to the revised questions and streamlined format. The redesigned Reading section was a big hit: “I really liked looking at the very short passages and answering a single question. It reduced my anxiety.” Those who are English language learners found the reading passages “much better and more interactive than the long reading texts on the current SAT.” For the Math section, students were able to analyze and answer the questions, which they claimed “were shorter, made sense, and got straight to the point.”

The test will be more secure

Lastly, test proctors and administrators appreciate the ease and security of the new SAT. With no forms to fill out and no paper tests and answer forms to package, test center coordinators “didn’t have to spend another half hour at the test center just to make sure that things are done.” If only one test form is compromised with the current paper-and-pencil test, the test administration can be canceled or students’ scores invalidated.

The SAT going digital also means each student receives a unique test form, thus making it virtually impossible to share answers.

Why should students take the SAT?

With the vast majority of colleges and universities making SAT scores optional on college applications, parents and students may naturally wonder what the point is of taking the test. Just because the SAT isn’t a required component of an application doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.

The question is not whether you need to take the test but what benefits SAT scores will provide. 

Why does the SAT matter at all if it’s optional at most colleges?

The College Board reports that of the 1.7 million students from the class of 2020 that took the SAT, about 300,000 were from rural areas or small towns, 600,000 were first-generation college goers and 700,000 were African American or Latino. According to Rodriguez, The SAT continues to “open doors for students of all backgrounds.”

In the class of 2021, 62% of students who students who took the SAT were able to take it for free in their school on a weekday. Independent research shows that universal school day testing leads to higher college-going rates for low-income students. To emphasize the value of the SAT to such students, Rodriguez points to her own experience as a child of immigrants who came to the U.S. with limited financial resources: “I know how the SAT Suite of Assessments opened doors to colleges, scholarships, and educational opportunities that I otherwise never would have known about or had access to.”

Finally, the SAT remains an objective measure that is available to students at a time where there are more than 25,000 high schools in the United States. Colleges can’t possibly be familiar with all those high schools and see every student in them. As the trend of grade inflation continues to escalate in U.S. high schools, determining which students should be accepted into college has become challenging.

While high school grades remain the most recognized indicator of a students capability, the share of students graduating high school with an A average has grown from 39% in 1998 to 55% in 2021. When more than half of students earn A’s, colleges need more reference points to make their decisions.

For many students, that means extracurricular activities, but clubs and sports are often costly and inaccessible for many families. When viewed in context, test scores can confirm a student’s GPA and demonstrate strengths beyond what grades may show.

Early results from the College Board’s pilot program indicates that the new digital SAT will be a better way for students to show what they know and thus stand out on their college applications.

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