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The New Digital SAT – What It Is and What It Means for College Admissions

A closeup image of a pencil laying on a multiple-choice answer form.

The past few years have seen an unprecedented number of American colleges and universities suspend or even completely drop their requirement that applicants submit standardized test scores from the SAT or ACT. Amid concerns about accessibility and equity during the pandemic, even universities like Harvard and Stanford have waived their testing requirement.

Recently, in response, the College Board has announced major changes to the SAT. Past challenges to the SAT and standardized testing have prompted such shifts before, as the College Board has strived to keep up with what universities want out of the test and assuage worries about how effective and equitable it is. Now, they’ve planned a new change.

In January 2022, the College Board announced an entirely new format for the future of the SAT. These changes will not be implemented for another year or two (2023 for international students and 2024 for students in the United States, which means current ninth-graders will be the first American students to take this new test), but it’s nevertheless worth thinking about what these differences might mean for students.

Digital Testing

Perhaps the biggest change is that the SAT is moving towards becoming fully digital. That means students will no longer take a paper-and-pencil test, but will instead complete the test on a laptop or tablet. Personal devices will be permitted, although devices will also be provided to students who don’t have one.

The upshot of this change is that students will be able to receive their SAT scores within days, rather than the multiple-week wait they previously endured. The test will also be designed to save students’ work automatically in the event of technical issues. Finally, the digital format will allow for the introduction of an adaptive, rather than static, test (see below).

One note: this does not mean that students will be able to take the SAT at home. Although there has been interest in that idea, so far the College Board has not found a way to administer remote tests effectively, so testing will still take place at test centers. Moreover, there will continue to be a paper-and-pencil option for students with relevant accommodations.

A New, Shorter Format

The new SAT will also be shorter, with the overall time of the test being shortened from three hours to two. On top of that, the new SAT will have fewer questions per section, thereby giving students more time to answer each question than in the past.

In addition, the entire Math section will now allow students to use a calculator (as opposed to having at least one non-calculator section), while the Reading section will be adjusted to focus on shorter texts and fewer questions about them.

Static vs. Adaptive

The final big change is that the SAT will now be partly adaptive, meaning that the questions students will receive will be affected by their previous answers. The new test will have two modules: one that is static (the current model, in which every student gets the same questions), and a second that will pose different questions based on student performance.

Why adaptive testing? Proponents argue that it makes the test more precise because it adjusts to the student’s level rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach. It also means the test can be shorter because it doesn’t need to ask as many questions in order to produce an accurate score. Finally, the adaptive test will make sharing answers much more difficult.

Undoubtedly, the turn toward an adaptive SAT will shape how tutors help students prepare for the test, although exactly how remains to be seen.

Final Thoughts

So, what does this mean for your college admissions process? For one, the College Board is hoping that these changes will make the SAT more appealing to high school students and lure them away from the ACT. Of course, the ACT recently announced a similar push toward developing a digital test, so this may be the reality for everyone soon.

Meanwhile, for colleges, a fairer and more accurate test may convince them to continue using SAT/ACT scores in their admissions process (rather than implementing test-optional or even test-blind policies), as the College Board is arguing that their new test will be a better indicator of a student’s potential for success in college. Whether colleges are convinced by this shift in approach remains to be seen, but the result will certainly alter the college admissions landscape for years to come.

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