If you’re someone with any sort of interest or stake in the college admissions process, you’ve probably heard that the SAT is going digital in the next couple of years. If you or your children will be preparing for the SAT when the test changes, or you work with students who will be prepping during that time, you’re probably wondering how everything is going to play out. And if you use Critical Reader guides, or are planning to use them, you’ll obviously want some idea of whether you should do your best with the current material or wait for updates.
So, to start with the basics.
First, yes, I will be revising my books to reflect the updated test. Unfortunately, however, I can’t begin that process until I see official practice material that reflects the exact structure and content of the digital version, and the only sample currently provided by the College Board doesn’t fit the bill. They seem to have taken an old exam and plugged it into the new software so that it is possible to see how things are literally formatted on the screen, but not how the new sections and test are actually structured, the number and types of questions, etc. Disappointing, but not particularly surprising.
According to the CB, more accurate practice material will be available in the summer or fall of 2022, so I’m essentially stuck until then. As always, I’ll post updates when I have a better idea of when things might be available, but at this point, I just don’t have a clear sense of how extensive the revisions will need to be. That said, I will do my utmost to have new editions available by Fall 2023.
While the CB claims that the test content is staying the same—and presumably it is, in a general sense—there is a whiff of something not entirely truthful about that claim. For its computer-based test, the ACT simply created an e-version that was the exact equivalent of the paper version; there were no changes to length, format, or number of questions. The College Board has clearly chosen to do otherwise, and the very substantial tweaks to the digital test will require me to rework and reorganize my existing material in ways that go beyond offering up a handful of new strategies.
My preliminary sense is that Writing questions will stay more or less unchanged while the real alterations are made to the Reading section—to be perfectly honest, I am hoping quite fervently for this, since it means that I will not have to completely overhaul both books—and until I really see the nitty-gritty of what the new format entails, I am crossing my fingers very hard that this will in fact be the case.
That said, I want to briefly cover the basics of what we do know about the new exam and pose some logistical questions of my own that I haven’t seen answered anywhere.
So to start, here’s a quick rundown of what is known:
- The exam will be shortened to two hours from the current three.
- The digital SAT will be rolled out internationally in Spring 2023, domestically in Spring 2024 (the last paper-based test will be administered in December 2023).
- Students will be allowed to take it on their own devices, but at a school or testing center rather than at home.
- Reading passages will be shorter and be accompanied by only one* question. (See #4 below)
- Calculators will be allowed on the full Math section.
- The scoring scale will remain the same (800-1600), and the CB will not release a concordance chart between the paper-based exam and the digital exam.
- Scores will be made available in days rather than weeks.
- Students with accommodations may opt for either the digital or the paper-based version.
It also seems probable that the exam will be adaptive, with performance on the early questions determining the level of difficulty in the later questions (discussed in more detail below).
Here are some of my questions— if anyone happens to have any insight into them, please get in touch!
1) How long will each section be, and how many questions will it contain?
We know that the overall test will be two hours, but it seems unclear just how that time will be divvied up.
- Will the time be divided evenly between Math and Verbal (1 hour/1 hour), or will Verbal be slightly longer, to accommodate both Reading and Writing?
- On the current exam, time is divided very unevenly between Writing (35 minutes, 40 questions) and Reading (65 minutes, 52 questions)—will those proportions be generally retained, or will they be altered in some way?
- Will the sections always be presented in the same order, or will some students start with Math and others with Verbal?
2) Will the test be adaptive within sections, or across them, or both?
Based on the preliminary understanding that I’ve managed to glean from various articles and tutor chat groups, the Math and Verbal tests will each have two sections, with performance on the first part determining the difficulty level of the second.
Assuming that this is the case, what is not quite clear to me is whether it will also be adaptive within sections—that is, whether the difficulty level of the questions will be adjusted as students move through a given section.
According to the CB website, students will be allowed to flag any question to return to it later, suggesting that either the algorithm is built to adapt to skipped questions (if one question is not answered, the algorithm can adjust to determine the appropriate level of difficulty for the following question) or that the adaptive feature will come into play in terms of determine what questions test-takers receive in the second section rather than in terms of which questions they see within a given section (in which case it will be absolutely imperative that students focus on answering the first few questions in a section correctly and avoid careless mistakes).
The answer to this question will undoubtedly have an impact on the sorts of strategies that students use, and that tutors teach, to maximize performance on the digital test.
3) Will Reading and Writing questions be combined in the same section, or will they be kept as separate sections?
For me, the practical question about this setup is whether Reading and Writing questions will remain separate, or whether the two question types will be interspersed throughout a given verbal section (as is currently the case on the GMAT).
Given that Reading passages are getting so much shorter, it seems reasonable to assume that the two question types will be combined in a single section. If this is the case, then some students, particularly on the lower end, will undoubtedly find it quite challenging to flip back and forth between reading comprehension and grammar mode.
4) Will Reading questions still include “evidence” pairs?
Two of the main talking points about the digital exam seem to be that one, the exam content will not change; and two, each reading passage will be accompanied by only a single question.
However, given the structure of the current exam, those two things cannot both be true.
“Evidence” pairs, in which a question asks test-takers to identify the line(s) that provide the answer to the previous question, involve two questions by definition—and these pairs are found throughout the current Reading test.
Will these questions be retained in their current format (in which case “one question” actually means “two questions”)? Will they be condensed into a single question? Or will they simply be eliminated?
This seems to me a genuinely important question because back in 2016, when the College Board was first researching electronic delivery, it was found that for non-Hispanic test-takers, computer-based Reading scores were uniformly higher than paper-based for this question type.
When I looked at the sample e-test provided by the College Board, the explanation was obvious: the four sections of the passage that corresponded to the four potential answers to the second question were highlighted on the screen, saving students the trouble of having to identify the relevant lines on their own. (The comparatively lower scores among Hispanic test-takers could be explained by a larger percentage of ESL students, whose difficulty with that question type presumably stems from genuine comprehension problems rather than attentional issues). If this question type is retained, it would be interesting to know how the Reading scores between the two versions of the exam are being equated.
Previous redesigns of the test have been fairly blatantly targeted toward inflating Verbal scores, or at least toward hindering them from declining further, and the shorter passages and single question per passage make it clear that that plays a role in driving the change to the new format (although granted other factors are exerting a much larger influence). If evidence pairs are retained, this could be an additional backdoor strategy for keeping Verbal scores from dipping too low.
5) Will the Reading section still include paired passages?
Two passages seem like an awful lot of trouble to go through for only one question, so it wouldn’t surprise me if these quietly got discarded (although it’s probably safe to assume that questions involving both graphs and passages will stay. Twenty-first century skills and all that). Since the ACT will still contain this much-maligned feature that requires—oh horror—additional focus, then scrapping it would be a potential win for the College Board.
Given the upset to the traditional testing model caused by the pandemic, the shift to a digital exam was basically inevitable. The new format will play to some students’ strengths and others’ weaknesses. Some will adapt seamlessly to the changes, others will rush to take the current, paper-based test while they can, and a small number will choose to take the ACT rather than deal with the uncertainty of the new format.
At this point, pretty much everyone recognizes the shift to digital as a play for continued market share in the face of a growing test-optional movement, and claims about increasing equity are likely to be met with a shrug. The reality is that instability breeds uncertainty and anxiety, and every new disruption and redesign of the SAT only pushes more students into the arms of the test-prep industry. People who can afford to do so will continue to pay hefty sums for reassurance, not to mention access to tutors who make it their business to understand every nuance of the digitized test.
Students may also be lulled into a sense of false competence by the digital format, work too quickly and focus less intently than they would have during a paper-based test, and consequently receive an unpleasant surprise when their scores come back—something that will likewise drive them to seek paid coaching. Even if students technically have the option of not submitting scores, their parents grew up in an era in which testing was required, and many of them will continue viewing test scores as an integral part of the admissions process.
Moreover, because the digital test is shorter and less of a hassle to take, it’s entirely possible that students who can afford to do so will sign up for the exam repeatedly rather than stop at perhaps two sittings as they would have in the past.
And of course, parents with the means and savvy to do so will continue to obtain accommodations for their children, in some cases under highly questionable pretexts, allowing them the continued option of taking the paper-based version.
In many ways, though, what more advantaged students do with the new exam is beside the point. The College Board recognized a while back that the continued relevance of the SAT would depend on state-testing contracts, and on the (public) school students who have the least say in whether they will take the exam. The fact that the Digital Suite page states that score reports will connect students to “information on two-year colleges, careers, and workforce training programs,” with no mention of four-year colleges, suggests that the exam is truly targeted toward lower achievers—and implicitly lower income ones—aiming to enroll in some sort of non-selective formal post-secondary institution. That many programs may not actually require scores—and may leave enrollees with tens of thousands of dollars in debt—is likewise beside the point.
At any rate, the digital exam looks like it might be the end of the line for a test called the SAT—it’s hard to imagine how it could be pared down any further. My guess is that it’ll hang on in this format for a while, remaining a background fixture of the college admissions process but gradually becoming less and less of a thing while the College Board finds other ways to push its brand. I don’t think it’s too farfetched to imagine certain AP tests being offered multiple times per year, with classes lasting only a semester (or perhaps being offered online on a rolling basis). Indeed, semester-long AP classes are already offered at some high schools. The SAT may come to play a less prominent role in the college admissions process, but it’s probably safe to say that the influence of the College Board will continue to be felt.