11 Things We Know About the Digital SAT

Here we go again. For the third time in less than 20 years, College Board is bringing to market, er, to students, a new version of its flagship exam, the SAT. This time, it’s digital. This is a long anticipated change, accelerated by (and perhaps given cover) by COVID-19, when 700,000 fewer students took the SAT and 14% of College Board’s SAT staff were laid off. Oh, and there’s that whole test-optional thing. That had to hurt. With standardized testing facing headwinds, and College Board continuing to battle ACT, its chief competitor, a move to a digital exam offers the promise of both improved test security and lower administrative costs.

For a moment, try to imagine the logistics of moving millions of tests and answer sheets to and from thousands of high schools. Yeah, not pretty. So, on paper, a digital SAT looks like a win-win. And to be fair, College Board may simply be playing catch up to state assessment tests (such as the PARCC exams in DC), high school placement exams (the ISEE and SSAT) and graduate school entrance exams (e.g., the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT).

But one sure imagines more than a few “Oh, c’mons” from teens, their parents, and teachers when College Board first announced “Digital SAT Brings Student-Friendly Changes to Test Experience.” As your teen might say, “Yeah, whatever.”

So, what are some of the things you’d like to know? Here are links to both the College Board FAQs and ours.

Recently, College Board invited a handful of testing companies to a webinar, sharing some of their thinking and asking our feedback and advice. I cannot tell you everything I heard because, well, then they’d have to kill me. Or not invite me back, which, you know, might kill me. But here are some highlights:

1) Less is more. The digital SAT is shorter, as you’ve probably heard. Roughly two hours rather than the current three. Hey, knock out the SAT and make your kid’s recital. Or not.

2) Paper or plastic? Once the SAT moves to the digital format in March 2024 (the digital PSAT is coming October 2023), the paper exam will be no more. The good news? Students can stop fighting with their parents about using “real pencils” and persist with the mechanical pencils they’ve always preferred anyway.

3) You won’t have to use your fingers! No more using a calculator on the math section, that is. (Cue: sighs of relief.) What we did learn from the kind-of-secret webinar is that the embedded digital calculator looks a lot like Desmos, which your kids may already be well-versed in. We’re not sure yet whether it’s a College Board version, but reportedly, students preferred the online calculator to their own. Good news: students have options.

4) Shorter passages. We mean really short. A few sentences. Like, maybe College Board would want to use point #4 as a passage. “What’s the main idea the author is trying to express?” Answer: The passages will be short.

5) Poetry!

There once was an SAT test

That College Board claimed was the best

But when colleges said nix it

They said, no we’ll fix it

You know we won’t give it a rest

Ok, so probably not limericks. But, yes, there will be poetry. Quite possibly because poems can be short.

6) Vocab. Oh, yes. Reports from students who took a beta version exam describe what sounds suspiciously like sentence completion problems from the pre-2016 SAT.

Despite concerns of parents about the new format of the SAT, College
  Board_________ confidence in its ability to administer the exam

A. demanded
B. projected
C. demurred
D. insinuated
E. All the above

7) The Wrath of Khan. Okay, you have to be of a certain age to think that’s funny. You also have to be of a certain age to think that’s not funny. Regardless, College Board’s collaboration with the Khan Academy will continue, providing students everywhere access to instructional videos, practice content, and free practice tests.

8) Adapting to adaptive tests. The new SAT will be adaptive, meaning that how you do on early parts of the SAT will dictate the difficulty of the questions you see later, part of allows the test to be shorter. There’s a lot of math behind the algorithm. In short, the math in making the SAT is much more complex than anything you’ll see on the SAT.

9) Quality over quantity. How will students know how to strategize for the adaptive test? Will there be practice tests? “How many practice SATs will be available?” These were the first questions (and 3rd, 7th, 15th…) that we testing folks asked during the aforementioned webinar. Because folks like me help students practice for the SAT, we kinda crave, you know, SAT tests to help them practice. College Board folks pledged that there would be at least two practice tests available to students through the Khan Academy and that they were working to have the same number of tests available (eight, at the moment) via Khan Academy as for the current SAT. So, two for now and more at some point. Expect test prep companies to bring to market more practice tests as soon as test specifications are released by College Board.

10) Whom does this affect? If you are Class of 2025 or later, you. So, stay tuned for more details. If you are class of 2023 or 2024, grab some popcorn and enjoy the show. Light a fire with #2 pencils and watch the deliciously bad standardized test classic, The Perfect Score.

11) Keep Calm and Study On. One final word from College Board to testing companies that I am happy pass on was this. College Board implored us to not create additional anxiety to drive new business. I agree. First, high school should not be reduced to a four-year audition for college but rather four years of teenagers learning — about themselves, their world, and how they want to contribute to it. Ideally, for most, college will be part of their futures. Tests like the SAT may be of that path. With test optional, it’s, well, an option. Students may want to prepare for and take the SAT (and/or ACT), but they don’t need to. Also, as a test prep geek for 30 years, I can assure you that overly stressed brains do not perform as well as less stressed brains. So, take school seriously. Or not, if talents and interests lie elsewhere. Take the SAT. Or not, if you shine everywhere else but on standardized test. Invest time and energy (and often money) into doing your best on the SAT. Or not, if you find that good enough is good enough. The digital SAT is coming. It is the fourth “new SAT” I’ve seen since becoming a tutor. It will neither be a panacea nor a cause for great angst. Trust me: This is something we can all handle well enough.