The PSAT and SAT will soon be taken exclusively by computer. This is a welcome change because it affirms the continuing relevance and usefulness of standardized tests in a digital, post-pandemic, test optional era.
There is likely to be a significant increase in the number of SAT test-takers when conversion to the digital model is complete. According to a survey done by the College Board in a pilot program, 80% of students said they prefer the digital tests and find them to be less stressful.
Standardized test scores remain the great leveler across socioeconomic differences, academic grading systems, and high school curricula. High scores prove a student’s cognitive abilities and college readiness beyond the ability of GPA to do so alone. Although their submission may be optional, test scores remain a useful tool for most top-tier colleges in selecting the most promising students.
Facts About the Digital Tests
The pandemic taught students to adapt to learning and test-taking in a digital world. The College Board is taking advantage of this by adopting digital testing. College Board’s digital product is described below.
Who Will Take the Tests
Students now in 10th grade, the high school class of 2025, will be the first to take the digital PSAT in the fall of 2023. There will be the same three variations in the digital PSAT that exist in the current test: PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10, and PSAT 8/9.
Most high school students take the SAT for the first time in spring of their junior year. The first digital SAT, set for March of 2024, will be taken by current 10th graders as well as students in lower grades who wish to take it. Current 10th graders can take only the paper SAT up until December 2023.
How and Where Students Will Take the Tests
Digital tests will not be taken by individual students in their home via the Internet. Instead, students will take them in a test center. They may use a Chromebook, laptop, or tablet. Students may use their own device or one will be provided by the test center. Plans are in development for test-taking on smartphones, but this is not considered a priority because the screens are so small.
Regardless of what device is used, a student at the test center will download and install a program from College Board for the test. It is designed to prevent the test-taker from using other features of the device while working on the test. Security and privacy are better in the digital than the paper system because each test-taker receives a personalized download for their test. This means, among other things, that question #10 on one student’s test is different than question #10 on another student’s test, making cheating more difficult and the testing process more secure.
A calculator integrated within the program will be provided for the duration of the tests. There will no longer be a math section prohibiting the use of a calculator as there is now on paper tests. A hide-able built-in timer will be displayed at the top of the page on which the student is working. If there is a disruption, the timer will pause and can later be reset by the proctor so that the test-taker will not lose time. A set of annotation tools will be also provided within the program so that students may take notes and highlight or cross out text.
Scoring Range Remains the Same but Test Timing Changes
As in the past, the 10th and 11th grade PSAT scores will range from 320 to 1520 points and the SAT will from 400 to 1600.
The time allowed for the PSAT and SAT digital tests will be 2 hours and 14 minutes, which is nearly one hour less than what the current paper tests allow. There will be two distinct Verbal sections, each lasting 32 minutes and having 27 questions. Only 25 of the 27 questions will be scored. The other two are experimental questions, used for research purposes by College Board in the development of future tests. There will no longer be a break between reading and writing in the Verbal section.
There will be two separate Math sections—each will last for 35 minutes and have 22 questions. Only 20 of the 22 questions will be scored with the other two being experimental. Grid-in questions, which are student-produced response questions, will be mixed in with multiple choice items, unlike the current SAT in which a distinct section contains only grid-ins. Instead of choosing a correct answer from options, students will solve problems and enter answers in grids on the screen.
Content Will Have Few Changes
For the most part, the Math content will remain the same. The full range of problem solving and data analysis topics that are covered on the current test will remain on the digital SAT. However, problem solving and data analysis (which covers things like percentages, probability, organizing data, and basic statistics) has been reduced in comparison to the current test.
In the Verbal part, there will no longer be long passages with multiple questions to answer about each one. Each question will have its own short passage, and the question will be for that short passage only. Passages will be standard prose comprehension with sections of poetry, bulleted notes, and logical completion items. In the latter, students will read a short passage, the last line of which has been left blank. The student will then choose from among four options the one that best completes the passage. Reading and writing items will be clustered—several reading, followed by several writing (either grammar or expression).
The most significant change on the digital test is termed its Section Adaptive feature. Students will begin their first Math and Verbal sections with questions researched to be at an average level of difficulty. The student’s device scores these questions immediately using the downloaded program. If the student scores high on these questions, he or she will be given more challenging questions for the next two sections. If the student does not perform well in these sections, that student will be given less difficult questions for the next two sections. Performance on the first section therefore dictates the range of possible scores that a student can receive.
Accommodations for the Digital Tests
The same accommodations will be facilitated for the digital tests that are available now under the paper-test system. The accommodations are integrated within the student’s personalized program. When a student signs in, their program will recognize their previously approved accommodations and will provide them as part of their test. The timer, for example, will be extended for those students who have been granted extended time and a screen will indicate if an extra break is scheduled. Likewise, a student’s screen may have larger print if that accommodation has been approved. As currently, the student must be approved for accommodations by the Services for Students with Disabilities panel at College Board. This must be done in advance of the test date so that College Board can download a personalized version of the program to the student.
Paper PSAT/SAT vs. Digital PSAT/SAT
While there are changes in how questions will be asked, there are no differences in scope for either the Verbal or the Math sections of the tests. The paper and digital tests will be comparable in all but the media used to take them.
College Board is recommending that colleges superscore between and among paper and digital versions. For example, if a student takes a paper SAT in December 2023 and receives a higher score in Verbal than in Math and then takes the digital SAT in May 2024 and gets a higher score in Math than in Verbal, College Board encourages schools to combine the two high scores into a superscore.
Practice Digital Tests
The College Board has released four free practice tests to help students prepare for the digital tests. They are already available on Bluebook, which is the College Board’s test delivery platform. The tests are not adaptive. There are also printable PDF versions of the practice tests that are only for those who will use a paper test as an accommodation.
Practice Test Tips
Students should guess if they don’t know an answer because incorrect answers will not be penalized. After students score their test, they can use the scoring guide, which has explanations of answers to guide students in identifying areas for study.
The time allowed for the digital SAT in paper form is longer than the SAT that is delivered digitally because, unlike the digital test, the paper version is not adaptive and more questions are necessary to fully assess knowledge and skills.
In traditional testing on the current SAT, the total number of correct answers corresponds directly to a scaled score. In an adaptive test like the digital SAT, scoring is more complex because individual questions have different weights. The term used for differential weighting is item response scoring.
Insights on the Math and Verbal Sections
Jed Applerouth, an educational consultant, has researched the digital SAT by administering the practice tests to a number of his student-clients. His overall finding was that the structural changes adopted to make the test shorter, adaptive, and slower-paced will make it much more popular with students and educators.
Regarding the Math section, Applerouth’s summary is as follows, “At 44 total problems, down from 58, the math section feels more manageable. There are fewer word problems, which is great for non-native speakers. On the digital SAT only 30% of math items will be in the context of science or social studies or real-world applications. The remaining 70% of items will be pure math problems.”
Regarding the Verbal section, Applerouth summarizes his insights as follows, “Reading is shorter, but tougher on the new SAT.Short passages are not necessarily easier passages. The reading level on the practice tests is as high, if not higher, than other SATs in recent years. Switching to a new topic, voice, and style every question requires a bit more mental agility. Counterbalancing this, the predictable grouping of questions by type (all vocabulary at once followed by all craft and structure questions), allows a student to get into a particular problem-solving mindset for a stretch of time.”
SAT vs. ACT
For several decades, the SAT and the ACT have essentially been different versions of the same thing. Both have served to measure the readiness of students for college. However, this similarity will end with the advent of the digital SAT.
The College Board is tacking in order to change with the times; ACT’s strategy is to stay the course as a paper-based system. Since most colleges that accept tests will accept either one, this divergence in technology will afford students the option to choose the one that suits them best.