The New Digital SAT

The days of the #2 pencil may be numbered, as College Board is on its way to a fully-digital replacement of the SAT. This post shares what is currently known about the new exam and also offers discussion of the unknowns that will become clear over the next 18 months. Expect updates here regularly as new information becomes available. 

Known

The College Board is revealing the most important facts about the digital SAT while still leaving room for necessary follow-up on the details. 

Intended Timeline
The new digital SAT will debut outside of the U.S. in 2023, while U.S. test-takers first crack at the new test will be in the form of the PSAT in October 2023. The digital SAT debuts in the U.S. in 2024. Current 9th graders – the class of 2025 – will be the first students in the U.S. for whom the new test will be a concern. Nearly all students in the class of 2024 will be done with college admission testing by the time the new SAT is offered. 

Format
The test is section-adaptive. Each subject will be divided into two sections. Based on a student’s performance in the first section, an algorithm chooses the appropriate difficulty for the second section. This allows the test-taker’s score on the 1600 scale to be pegged more efficiently, and College Board is highlighting that the new test will be shortened from three hours to two hours. In theory, adaptive digital tests are more secure than static paper tests, since students are presented with different sections. The integrity of the item bank and section bank must still be maintained, however, and this adds its own set of security concerns.

Content
College Board is taking the opportunity to tinker with the content of the exam in ways that are intended to be more student-friendly and pedagogically relevant. On the math, gone are the questions on which a calculator is not allowed. Similarly given the boot are long reading passages with banks of related questions; instead there will be short passages with one question per passage. From most students’ perspectives, these changes are less meaningful than the overall shortening of the exam and the need to be familiar with the online format.

Testing Dates and Locations
Students will be allowed to use their own computers or tablets or those provided by the test center. Testing will *not* be done at-home (unlike the AP exams that were taken at home in spring 2020). The digital format lends itself to greater flexibility in test dates, scheduling, and locations. Electronic distribution is far more dynamic than shipping and storing paper tests. An adaptive test with a sufficiently large item bank would allow College Board to break away from the “one-and-done” constraint of static, paper-based forms. Expect that schools willing to host the exam will enjoy greater flexibility with when they may offer the test. College Board will continue to encourage schools to administer the exam during the school day, an option which has already been surging in popularity with the SAT and even more broadly with the ACT.

Scoring
The exam will remain on the familiar 1600 scale, with scores that remain comparable to scores from the old (current) paper-based exams and, in turn, comparable to the ACT. Students will appreciate getting their scores back within days rather than weeks. On the other hand, they will need to adjust to scoring that weights the adaptive sections based on difficulty. The GRE went entirely digital in 2011 and has been using section-adaptive testing for more than a decade, so test makers have extensive experience in producing and scoring these tests. If College Board follows the same scoring rules as the GRE, scores within a section will still be calculated by the number of right answers and equated to produce comparable scaled scores (similar to how the current SAT is scored). When combining the sections, though, the scoring is more opaque. A low-scoring student is likely to do better on the second section, as the difficulty will decrease. A high-scoring student is likely to miss more questions on the second section, since the difficulty will increase. The 200-800 score will need to reflect these differences.

College Board has not yet stated whether it will need to collaborate with ACT to create a concordance to compare new SAT scores to old SAT scores to ACT scores. Admission offices depend on the consistency and interchangeability of scores, so expect to hear more on this topic. 

Free Practice Materials
College Board will continue its partnership with Khan Academy to provide practice exams and prep materials online at no cost to students. Practice tests are expected to be available by fall 2022. The scope, quality, and timeline of the release of these resources will play a large part in how willingly students in the class of 2025 accept their places at the front of the line. 

Broadly, the plans for the new digital SAT appear sensible and timely, especially for the most important stakeholders: the students who take the test and the overworked school staff who administer the test. If high-stakes admission tests are going to continue to exist, their content and delivery needs to be modernized. “It’s a move of the College Board into the 21st century when it comes to improving the testing experience for students,” said Kedra Ishop, USC vice president of enrollment management. “It’s going to be easier to take for students. It’s more secure and more relevant to a broader set of students. And that’s a step in the right direction.

Unknown

Some details are not yet clear and some issues will have outcomes that simply aren’t yet knowable. 

Paper to Digital: No Overlap
Will there really be NO transition period during which the current paper-based SAT would continue to be offered alongside the new digital SAT? Apparently not. College Board intends to make a clean break from the current paper non-adaptive test (except for a paper test accommodation for students with certain learning differences). This seems like a bold move that will drive some students to the familiar paper-based ACT, but there are significant operational advantages for College Board and for testing centers by eliminating paper, non-adaptive exams. We will have to see whether College Board’s plan to offer a paper SAT for the last time in fall 2023 remains intact. 

ACT as Safe Choice
Will there be a 1-2 year massive swing to the ACT by students exercising a choice, as there was in the mid-2010’s during the last major SAT overhaul? Quite possibly. While a shorter exam may pull in early adopters, many students will feel it prudent to let others go first. Research has shown that students prefer a digital experience, and a streamlined administration may provide more scheduling options. Whether or not many students take the plunge into the new digital SAT early will hinge on their confidence that they will not be disadvantaged by the changes. Based on past transitions, students will be looking for the availability of high-quality prep materials well in advance of the new test’s debut and reassurance that colleges are on board. Students will need to weigh new twists. Early items can have a disproportionate impact on scoring, for example.

10th Grade PSAT for the Class of 2025
Will 10th graders in October 2022 be offered a pilot of the digital test instead of the current paper-based PSAT? Otherwise their practice PSAT will be a wholly different experience than their PSAT in October 2023 that counts for National Merit consideration. We hope that College Board will consider expanding the ongoing pilot testing to include letting tenth graders this fall experience the latest and greatest version of the exam. 

Get It Before It’s Gone
Will there be a rush of students in 2023 who want to take the old (current) SAT before it is discontinued, as was the case during the last major overhaul of the SAT? The summer between sophomore and junior year is a popular time for students to begin thinking about the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. In the summer of 2023, though, the class of 2025 will have limited experience with the digital exam. For some students, this will tip them toward the ACT. Other students may push their timelines forward. Strong test-takers, for example, would have the opportunity to bank a top score on the current test with which they will be more familiar and for which they will have access to volumes of seasoned prep resources. The downside is that students not well-suited to taking tests earlier than spring of 11th grade may be lured into doing so against their interests. 

Learning Differences
Will students with learning differences who take the SAT with special accommodations be adversely or positively affected by these changes? This depends, of course, on the nature of the learning differences and the specific accommodations afforded a particular student. In general, the switch to a digital, adaptive exam should open up new or streamlined ways of accommodating all students. It will be imperative for College Board to provide comprehensive guidance in this area. 

Blessing These Plans
Will substantially all colleges agree to treat the new test like the current test? And will this drive even more momentum behind the Test Optional / Test Free movement? Clearly the College Board is trying to create a test that is more friendly to test-takers and test administrators. College Board hopes to hold the line at Test Optional and ensure that students continue to have (and exercise) the choice to take tests and submit scores with applications. We anticipate rumblings by some college folks, especially by those that would like to see the tests eliminated altogether, but ultimately we expect College Board will adequately make the case that the new digital test is – for better and for worse – as legitimate and equitable as the current test. College Board has made the right move in shying away from at-home testing, as this largely avoids the issue of bandwidth, computer availability, and the provision of an appropriate and secure testing environment. It doesn’t completely sidestep the technology advantage that some schools and students possess.

Flexible Scheduling of Test Dates
How much flexibility will schools have in scheduling? Currently there are seven weekends annually when the SAT is administered in the U.S., plus a smattering of dates when the SAT can be hosted during the school day. College Board is hinting that they may offer much more flexibility, as afforded by a test that is digital and adaptive. We know that testing during the school day is popular with students. It’s unclear whether the schools that currently serve as open test sites on national weekend test dates will remain motivated to do so if they can more easily accommodate their own students during the school day.

Homeschooled Students
Will homeschoolers have equal access to testing? Homeschooled students will be disproportionately disadvantaged if seats at testing sites are increasingly available only to a school’s own students. Homeschooling was already on the rise, and the pandemic has accelerated the trend. Homeschools graduate more students each year than California, and these students often depend on testing to confirm their academic achievements. Despite the size of the market, College Board has had difficulty creating easy pathways for homeschoolers on school-based tests such as the PSAT and APs.

Repeat Testing
How often will students be allowed to sit for the exam? Currently students are restrained by the number of national test dates plus the 1-2x/year the test may be offered on a weekday by their school. An adaptive test is vulnerable to certain security concerns including crowd-sourcing of items in the question bank, so presumably there will be some limits. However, a menu of test dates that allows students to retest right away, for example, would be a popular advantage over the current schedule of paper-based ACT dates. 

Best Laid Plans
Will the College Board really be able to stick to this timetable and scope of changes? Hard to say. During the last major overhaul of the SAT, a combination of operational challenges and constituent pushback caused the plans to be delayed (though not substantially altered). The actual content and technical work required of College Board to implement these changes is not as extensive, so our best guess is that the stipulated timeline will hold.

Your Move, ACT
How will ACT respond to this shot across the bow from their competitor? Beyond the view of most readers of this blog, the real battle between these testing behemoths is for market share with district and state contracts in the U.S. and with international test-takers. ACT certainly has the capability to move to an adaptive digital test on a similar or more aggressive timetable and could even add their own unique bells and whistles. They may choose a wait-and-see approach and try to learn from College Board’s experience. ACT’s current digital test is non-adaptive, the exact same length and content as their paper exam, and only offered through participating schools. Whether because of or in spite of these more traditional parameters, ACT’s digital offering is rapidly growing in popularity.


Adam Ingersoll began his career in test prep in 1993 while at the University of Southern California, where he was a student-athlete on the basketball team, worked in the admission office, and graduated magna cum laude. Over the last three decades he has guided thousands of families to successful experiences with standardized tests and has mentored hundreds of the industry’s most sought-after tutors. Adam is known nationally as a leading expert on college admission testing and is a frequent presenter at higher ed conferences, faculty development workshops, and school seminars.

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