Digital vs. Paper SAT: What you need to know

Goodbye, Scantron sheets and #2 pencils. Hello, test-taking tablets, adaptive testing, and graphing calculators. After nearly a century as a paper-and-pencil test, the SAT is going digital in March 2024. 

The Core Differences:

Headline-grabbing changes include testing on a computer, different tests for different students, and the most celebrated of changes – its shorter length. Thank you! More subtle but no less significant alterations include new test-taking tools that are embedded in the test, changes in question types, and a reduction in transparency. In short, there are a lot of changes. We’ll walk through the changes, explain what differences (if any) they make, and consider what students can do to be prepared. Let’s dig into the details. 

The traditional paper-and-pencil SAT consists of four separate sections: 

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Non-calculator math
  • Calculator math. 

This model will be replaced with a streamlined dSAT (digital SAT) with 

  • Two modules of mixed reading and writing questions 
  • Two modules of math. 

The second module will test similar content to content in the first module but will be purposefully easier or harder than the first. This is an important difference that we further explore below. 

Length of the dSAT test

First, let’s talk about the difference in length. The current paper SAT is considerably longer than any test students take in school, and this has long been an issue for students who struggle with sustained attention or stamina. It is also a logistical hassle for school-based administrations of the SAT, because  three hours of content extends to a four-hour test-day experience. For students with an extra time accommodation, the total time is nearly six hours. 

The dSAT will be markedly shorter; it is a 2-hour and 14-minute test – and because College Board is doing away with pretest questions and the experimental section, the total time remains close to a 2-hour 30-minute testing experience. 

How did they cut so much time from the dSAT?

It’s shortened mostly by asking fewer questions. Although the paper SAT contains 96 reading and writing and 58 math questions, the dSAT shrinks that to 54 reading and writing questions and 44 math questions. Notably, the end result is that the dSAT actually increases the amount of time per question. 

You may wonder how on earth a shorter test with fewer questions can accurately arrive at scores in  the same way as the paper SAT. In short, it doesn’t. It arrives at accurate scores with an adaptive, not a static, test. On the paper SAT, students answer the same questions, and scoring is  straightforward — based simply on the number of answers that are right or wrong. On the dSAT, however, different students see different versions of the test, and some questions matter more than others. 

How dSAT adaptive scoring works

On the first Reading and Writing module, students will see a mix of easy, medium, and hard questions. Students who perform well in that first module will have a second verbal module that is primarily comprised of  harder questions; students who haven’t performed as well will see an easier second verbal module with mostly easy and medium questions. By giving each student questions that are targeted to their ability, the test can more quickly pinpoint an accurate score. The math modules employ the same process. 

Additionally, not all questions are created equal. Their value is based on several factors, including the degree of difficulty and the extent to which it’s possible for a student to guess the right answer. What does that mean for students? Simply put, getting an easy question wrong hurts more than getting a hard one wrong, while getting a hard one right helps more than getting an easy one right.

How does the dSAT software work? 

The dSAT’s testing software introduces in-test tools that mimic the experience of taking a paper test. Students can highlight text, mark questions to return to later, and track the remaining time with an embedded clock. (No more craning of necks is needed to see an inconveniently placed wall clock.) Perhaps the most important software feature is the built-in Desmos graphing calculator, a sophisticated math tool that can be used to solve a wide range of arithmetic and algebraic questions. Students may also use their personal calculators, but they would do well to practice with Desmos and explore how much it can help. (It is no exaggeration to describe it as a “game changer.”) 

Although the markedly different online tools and the absence of a non-calculator math section have caught a lot of attention, it is the content changes that students, parents, and educators would do well to understand. There will be winners and losers. The math content, with a familiar mix of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and precalculus, presented in both multiple-choice and student produced response (aka “grid in”) formats, has not changed significantly. However, the content and question types on the Reading and Writing section have. 

Reading and Writing Sections in the dSAT

To start, gone are long reading passages. Students will not see a wall of words to read before tackling questions but instead will see a few lines or a few sentences of text. For students, that seems like an obvious win. 

College Board surely had several reasons for making this change, but one stands out: on the paper SAT, students simply were not reading the passages. Instead, many were reading the questions and then searching through the text for answers. 

The new dSAT format presents students with only a paragraph or so at a time, but bite-size passages still add up to a heap of words. According to College Board, the Reading and Writing section of the digital test features 25-150 words per stimulus text. The paper SAT averages out to about 52 words of passage text per question across the Reading and Writing sections, so the actual total reading demand is similar. Also, shorter passages are not necessarily good news for everyone. Students who struggle with shifting their attention may find it easier to handle a long passage with multiple questions attached than a series of 54 brief single-question passages in a row.

New challenges Presented by the dSAT

The Reading and Writing modules of the dSAT only test a handful of skills, including vocabulary, grammar, the effective use of transitions, and the ability to read closely and make logical deductions about what you’ve read, all of which should please old-school English teachers. This is in some ways similar to the paper SAT, but in some ways not. The current paper SAT that launched in 2016 was in many ways a response to the ACT, which for a while eclipsed the SAT as the dominant college admissions test in America. Ostensibly designed to align with the Common Core, the 2016 SAT also aligned more closely with the ACT by jettisoning the last of its discrete vocabulary questions and focusing more heavily on punctuation than on the esoteric nerdy grammar that populated earlier versions of the SAT. Those changes persist. As in the ACT’s English section, the Writing questions on the digital SAT remain rooted in punctuation, with even the most challenging questions very much rule driven.

Conversely, vocabulary seems to be sneaking back into the test. In 2016, College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT was getting rid of “SAT words,” and it mostly did. But vocabulary didn’t completely disappear from the paper SAT; the test just got more subtle about it. In place of the pre-2016 question types of antonyms, analogies, and sentence completions, vocabulary challenges were embedded into the aforementioned long(ish) reading passages. In the dSAT, vocab is back more explicitly, appearing in questions that look a lot like resurrected sentence completions.  Although there may not be a rush to brush off boxes of vocabulary cards (as the words tested are not particularly obscure), the dSAT will reward students with strong vocabularies

The biggest changes

Finally, the most significant content change on the Reading and Writing is likely the introduction of “Information and Ideas” questions, which ask students to draw inferences, strengthen or weaken arguments, or otherwise demonstrate their analytical skills. Essentially, these questions are similar to the logical reasoning questions found on the LSAT, GMAT, and GRE, and the hardest of them are a significant challenge. Unlike the old “Where’s Waldo” type questions, these require both close reading and careful logical thinking.

With all of these changes, what is staying the same?

Students who take the dSAT are still required to test at approved testing locations, generally local schools. The scoring remains on a 1600 scale: 200-800 for Reading and Writing, 200-800 for Math. Unlike in previous overhauls, College Board will not release a new concordance table to “convert” scores from one test to another as College Board has offered assurances that the two forms of the test align closely enough that none is needed. Special accommodations that existed for the paper SAT, including ezra time,  will remain for the dSAT. 

Accommodations such as audio versions of text will be even easier to deliver on the dSAT. Significantly, however, students who are hoping to take the test on paper, knowing or believing that they process material better on paper than on a computer screen, are out of luck. College Board has stated that a paper version of the test will be made available only to students whose disability creates an “inability to use a computer.” 

Practice and Feedback from dSAT Testing are important

Finally, one last point for students to consider is this: feedback, not just practice, matters. Unlike on the paper SAT, students will not be able to see what questions they got wrong on the dSAT. The paper SAT offered a Question & Answer Service (QAS) for certain test dates, which provided students with access to the actual questions they saw on their test so that they could better analyze their performance. That service does not exist for the dSAT, so students will not be able to see what they missed and will not be able to determine why they answered incorrectly. Hard question? Foolish mistake? Who knows? That lack of transparency may be the biggest hurdle created by the dSAT. 

Focus is key for success

Additionally, at least for our students who took the digital version of the PSAT, test-takers were somewhat staggered with their start times, breaks, and stop times, meaning that other students were coming and going during the test. Does that really matter? Yes. In one seminal study by the Department of Defense, 2.8-second interruptions (on a computer!) DOUBLED errors by disrupting attention — and, what’s worse, the test-takers didn’t even realize it. This means that taking practice tests in a setting that imitates the real thing is especially important for the dSAT. Taking tests at home is not the same! 

The good news is that, as with every other version of the SAT (and some of us here at PrepMatters are now on our fifth version), students can get better with practice. However, the nature of the practice matters. To solve problems, it is important to understand what caused the problem in the first place – and working through practice test results and other missed questions with a trusted professional makes all the difference.

PrepMatters has provided test preparation services for over 25 years in the Washington, DC and greater DMV community. Our tutors specialize in helping kids prepare in a way that sets them up to succeed on test day and, in addition, to develop positive study and academic habits. We would welcome the opportunity to help your student. 

-Ned Johnson

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