The SAT Gets an Update for a Digital World

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The SAT is going digital.

It’s part of the College Board’s goal to make sure the SAT is more accessible and less stressful for students and administrators. The new test has also been shortened, taking about two hours instead of three, and the reading assessment has been adjusted for time. Tests will be given on computers provided by schools or the College Board itself.

Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments at the College BoardPriscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments at the College BoardThe new format was piloted in November 2021, and so far, results are promising: 80% of students in the pilot said they found the new SAT to be less stressful, and 100% of those administering the test said it was a positive experience. Full roll out of the digital test will happen globally in spring 2023 and in the U.S. by spring 2024.

This change comes at a time when more colleges are making submission of test scores in applications optional, like the University of California who suspended their test requirements until at least fall 2024.

“We realized that so much feedback we get from students, families, and educators on what it’s like to give the SAT, can be addressed by going digital,” said Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments at the College Board. “Going digital has radically changed a lot of limitation.”

Using physical pencil and paper tests meant logistical headaches in ensuring the security of thousands of SATs distributed across the globe.

“Because we’re digitally deploying the test, we can make each version of the SAT unique to [each student.] Psychometrically equivalent, but different,” said Rodriguez. “That’s a game changer. Once we introduce digital testing, [schools] are going to have so much more flexibility.”

About 60% of students currently take the test during SAT School Days, where a K-12 school picks one of four days in the spring for a cohort to be tested all together at one time, at no cost for the students. Having a shorter, digital test opens up the timeframe beyond just four days and one start time. The differing versions can be administered in groups spread throughout the day. Schools can even use the same computer to test students if supplies are low. All of this creates more opportunities for test-taking.

The College Board uses Core to deliver the tests, a software application they developed to administer millions of Advanced Placement (AP) tests to students in spring 2021. Core locks down the machine to ensure that students cannot use the web for help.

Kirsten Amematsro, a junior at Potomac Senior High School in Dumfries, Virginia, was one of the students to take the pilot test in November. She also took the paper test in December, and said the digital test was a much less stressful experience.

"Right off the bat, it was less stressful. On the paper test, there's all these things you have to fill out that add to the stress, the aspect of having to bubble in your answers. It looks very daunting," said Amematsro.

Amematsro also liked the shorter length of the test. The traditional test formats its reading assessment questions based on a large body of text. But in the digital version, shorter paragraphs lead off every question, which meant "quicker reading," said Amematsro.

Christal Wang, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, said that reading had always been a sticking point for her when she would take the practice SATs. The digital test changed that.

"The shorter reading organizes it more, it’s better for focus, I think," said Wang. "It doesn’t give you the opportunity to let your mind wander while reading the passage. It’s just divided in a way so you can focus on one thing at a time."

Wang also said that she found the digital test less tiring. She took the paper test in both August and December 2021 and said she felt "completely exhausted after reading all the passages. I didn't want to move on to the next section."

The digital test comes with its own calculator, Desmos, something Amematsro was familiar with having used it in school before. Overall, Amematsro and Wang both said they felt more confident taking the test on the computer.

"Taking tests online, even long tests, isn’t new to me," said Wang. "Last year I took the AP tests online, and they were longer than the digital SAT. So I was used to the app, used to how everything would look. I think for someone entirely new to digital testing it might be a shock at first, but for me, even for school, most of my work is done online." 

The digital test also means that students will receive their results within days, not weeks. This gives them the chance to decide what they want to do with those scores, which could include a targeted practice and retaking of the test later.

Rodriguez said when building the test, the College Board paid special attention to ensure that the digital transformation would not leave any student behind because of a lack of access to technology or steady broadband.

“Bandwidth varies widely in the U.S., so we’re designed the testing application to require the bare minimum of connectivity,” said Rodriguez. “They need connection for a few moments to start the test. The room proctor gives them a code, and then they don’t need connectivity until they’re done to upload results.”

School districts will continue to provide the computers for school day testing, and individuals will be responsible for bringing their own to weekend testing. But, if any person or school district is having difficulty accessing the needed technology, the College Board is working with a fulfillment partner that will deliver laptops to anyone or any school that needs them.

The digital format can be easily adjusted for those students with accommodations, but should a paper and pencil test be needed, like for a student requiring Braille, the option will remain available.

Liann Herder can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.