For nearly half a century, the SAT has been a cornerstone of the college admissions process. The upcoming shift from the paper-and-pencil version to a digital, adaptive SAT is one of the biggest changes to the test since its inception in 1926. The Class of 2025 will be the first U.S. students to experience both the PSAT and SAT in a digital, adaptive format.
According to CollegeBoard (the maker of the SAT), this transformative shift towards digital testing on computers and tablets will streamline the testing process while maintaining rigorous testing standards and offering many benefits to students: adaptability, shorter test duration (36 fewer minutes in Reading/Writing and 10 fewer minutes in Math), and a modernized format to match changing educational needs. But families and teens are sure to have questions and concerns about the new adaptive scoring features, new digital interface, and the changes to what’s tested and how frequently.
In this blog post, we'll explore the differences between the traditional paper-and-pencil SAT and the new dSAT, covering the following key aspects that will impact high school counselors and students.
- Timeline for Implementation
- Exam Structure & Adaptive Scoring
- Changes to Content Tested
- New Digital Interface
- Updates for Students with Accommodations
- Response by ACT to these SAT changes
Timeline for Implementation
The College Board launched an international version of the digital SAT in March 2023, so international students already have experience with this new format. The transition to the U.S. starts in October 2023 with the PSAT in digital format and the new digital SAT making its U.S. debut on March 9, 2024. Similar to the pencil-and-paper SAT, the new dSAT will still be administered at a school or testing site. Students will not take this exam from home.
Below are a few more details about the administration of the new dSAT:
- National testing dates remain as scheduled (for now).
- Schools that administer the exams will get more flexibility for administration dates and makeups.
- The exam will always be administered at school or a testing site. This exam is not to be taken at home. One benefit is students within the same testing location can begin the exam at different times.
- Students can use their own laptops (Mac or PC), iPads, or school desktops, laptops, or Chromebooks. The Bluebook App software to take the exam must be installed in advance on this device. This ensures that when a student connects the app to the internet and starts a test that the app will download the questions to the testing device. This app also “locks down” the rest of the device, so students will not be able to open any other application on their computer while the Bluebook App is running.
- Luckily, bandwidth requirements are minimal, so an internet connectivity issue should not disrupt a student’s ability to complete a test. The exam results can even be uploaded after the test is completed.
- With the new digital format, students receive their scores more quickly but will no longer be able to access their test questions after the exam administration.
- The digital SAT structure introduces enhanced security measures and reduces traditional concerns of test compromise. Students testing together in the same room will encounter different versions of the test.
Exam Structure & Adaptive Scoring
The new dSAT is broken down into two sections:
- Reading and Writing - two modules, each with 27 questions in 32 minutes (total of 54 questions in 64 minutes for the Reading and Writing section)
- Math - two modules, each with 22 questions in 35 minutes (total of 44 questions in 70 minutes for the Math section)
All students take the dSAT in the same order: Reading & Writing Module 1, Reading & Writing Module 2, Break, Math Module 1, and Math Module 2. A student’s performance in the first module determines if the second module presents on average easier or on average harder questions (more about that in the Adaptive Scoring section below). This adaptive nature of the new dSAT is one of the most significant changes. Unlike the traditional SAT, the dSAT tailors its difficulty level based on a student's performance. According to CollegeBoard, this feature aims to provide a more accurate assessment of a student's abilities by presenting questions that align with their skill level.
* The College Board has indicated that scores from both the current and digital SAT will be considered equivalent. Colleges utilize an ACT/SAT Concordance to correlate SAT and ACT scores, and according to College Board, this same concordance will be valid for the new digital SAT.OVERVIEW
During the dSAT, students will encounter different test versions right from the start. This is achieved by using a diverse range of questions to create individualized question sets for each student. Despite the varied questions, the topics remain consistent, ensuring fairness for all test-takers.
Unlike the traditional SAT, the dSAT's adaptive scoring system assigns different point values to questions based on their difficulty and which module they fall within. In the dSAT, the difficulty of questions adapts according to a student's performance within the module. This adaptive scoring system, based on Item Response Theory (IRT), provides a nuanced understanding of a student's abilities.
To gain access to the more challenging second module (and the higher score it brings), students need to achieve a specific score in the first module. This "magic number" unlocks the potential for a higher overall score. See this chart below for an example pathway for a student from the first math module to the second math module, which is either on average easier (and gives a maximum math score of 600 points) or on average harder (and gives a maximum math score of 800 points).
The “magic number” to get to the more challenging second module is estimated as 13+ correct answers out of 22 in Math and 18+ correct answers out of 27 questions in Reading & Writing. Hitting this “magic number” in the first module opens the door to a higher overall score.
Changes to Content Tested
There are two types of modules for the dSAT - (1) Reading & Writing and (2) Math. We’ll next review the specific changes for content tested in each.
Reading & Writing
The dSAT's Reading & Writing modules present a unique challenge. Short but complex passages, ranging from 25 to 150 words, require students to extract key information efficiently. This is in stark contrast to 11 questions alongside a long passage (600-700 words) on the current pencil-and-paper SAT. With passages spanning various disciplines - including humanities, literature, science, and even poetry - the dSAT aims to assess a broad range of skills. The key change is that instead of Reading and Writing/Language existing in two different sections, the questions are now intermingled, so students encounter both question types within one verbal module.
A few additional changes include the removal of the "Great Global Conversation" reading passage type, simplification of graphics-related questions for digital devices, exclusion of commonly confused words or idiomatic phrases in writing questions, and the elimination of the "No Change" option in writing questions. Strategic time management is vital for success, especially given the modular nature of the test.
The math modules on the dSAT emphasize real-world applications. The introduction of figures drawn to scale, real number variables, student-produced responses that can be negative, and access to a calculator on all questions are all new additions to the math section. Imaginary and complex numbers are no longer covered on the dSAT exam. The exam's format for answering math questions, including the handling of fractions and decimals, requires precision. Each question is now a standalone discrete item: there are no question sets that reference common information.
New Digital SAT Interface
The Bluebook App is at the heart of the new dSAT experience. Students will take their digital SAT through this application, which requires prior installation. The app provides a platform for both practice and the actual exam. It features tools like the grid-in response format and a built-in Desmos graphing calculator. Familiarity with these tools is essential for a smooth testing experience. A highlighter, answer eliminator, and question flag work in unison to enable students to track their progress and flag questions warranting further review. It's crucial to note that while the highlighter serves as a valuable asset across the test, it is unavailable within the Math section.
To excel in the new digital format of the SAT, we recommend preparing in two distinct ways.
- First, students must practice their scratch paper strategy. On the dSAT, students are only allowed five sheets of scratch paper so they must be efficient. Example strategies include folding or drawing grids to keep work organized by question and module. Additionally, numbering questions along the way will allow students to circle back to questions quickly.
- Second, students need to practice with the Bluebook app and new online format. Students do not want to lose time navigating the app on test day, so taking practice exams in the digital format will be an integral part of an effective preparation strategy. In addition, students should pay extra attention to the four key features - the annotation tool, online reference sheets, the Desmos calculator, and the grid-in response format. Feeling confident about these features will ensure students are ready to perform at their best.
Updates for Students with Accommodations
High school students and families should note that the digital SAT will maintain testing accommodations in its new digital, adaptive format. Some accommodations, such as large print, may no longer be required as digital screens can be adjusted by the user. However, other accommodations, like extended time or breaks, are still available. If digital accommodations are not feasible, students may be eligible for a 3-hour, non-adaptive paper-and-pencil based version of the dSAT.
Response by ACT to SAT’s dSAT Changes
Once families start to wrap their brains around the changes coming with the new digital SAT, the next question they always ask is, “What does this mean for the ACT?” Here are some key takeaways from the ACT as families consider which test is right for them.
- ACT wants to continue to be viewed by families as the stable, reliable testing option for college admissions. The new digital SAT represents the third different SAT offered in only the past eight years. The ACT, however, has not made a major change in over 30 years.
- Executives at ACT recognize that the shorter testing length might appeal to stakeholders and are considering ways to shorten their test. However, they’re not open to cutting the Science section as one option.
- ACT will continue to offer the optional essay writing section.
- ACT will continue to consider section retesting options but has delayed that option since it was originally scheduled for launch in September 2020.
- ACT is considering a shift to digital testing with adaptive scoring but has not made any decisions or announcements on that change.
The transition from the traditional paper-and-pencil SAT to the digital, adaptive SAT represents a monumental shift in standardized testing. High school counselors, teachers, families, and students alike should prepare for the changes ahead, including the adaptive format, the Bluebook App interface, and the nuanced question structures. By understanding the differences and adapting their strategies, all students can navigate the digital SAT with confidence, paving the way for success in their college admissions journey.
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