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The New Digital SAT

By June 21, 2022 June 30th, 2022 College Admission Requirements, PSAT, SAT

Our product team recently spent time with executives from College Board and ACT, Inc. We left with a lot to report from both camps. This post distills the conversations down for initial consumption. New information and resources will continue to become available about the digital SAT during the next 4-6 months, and Compass will help explain what it all means to families and counselors.

THE SHORT VERSION:

The 21st century dovetailing of the SAT and ACT is about to diverge.

SAT’s tact is to change with the times; ACT’s strategy is to stay the course. Both make a case for how students benefit from the paths they are each paving.

The new terrain looks as transformed as anything the test prep industry has previously navigated. It will require more resources, institutional experience, technical expertise, and specialization than ever before to properly respond to the needs of the market. Our product & tech teams continue to feel invigorated about the opportunities this creates. The advanced work they’ve completed over the last few years positions Compass very well for the approaching changes. Compass will offer an early “PSAT experience” to students this fall, as a way to help them develop comfort with the new format.

Almost all students in the class of 2024 will finish their testing before the arrival of the digital SAT. It’s far more complicated for the class of 2025. Here is what families and counselors need to know.

Rollout Timeline

Courtesy of College Board

Differences Between the New Digital SAT and Paper Tests

DETAILS ON THE DIGITAL ADAPTIVE SAT:

Rollout
  • Test specs are expected no later than early July and may be available within days. The specifications will include sample items, but little in the way of practice material.
  • Four practice tests are expected this fall on the College Board’s testing app.
  • Khan Academy will release initial practice exercises this fall.
  • Students, high schools, and colleges will not need to learn new scoring. College Board will continue with 200-800 scoring, and no concordance is needed. A 620 on a paper test is meant to equate to a 620 on the digital SAT.

Will colleges superscore paper and digital? Advanced juniors may test on paper in the fall of 2023 and re-test on the digital form in the spring of 2024. The former is more useful if it can be superscored with the latter. Since concordance is not required, College Board will endorse superscoring. Ultimately the decision lies with individual colleges.

Administration
  • National dates will remain unchanged for now.
  • School day testing will enjoy even greater flexibility: broad testing windows, staggering students throughout the day or across a week or month. Easy make-ups for absences. However, there will be limits to re-testing within a window.
  • National testing could eventually offer more flexibility: staggered start times throughout the day, etc.
  • No firm answer yet on how fees may be affected.
Accommodations
  • Existing accommodations will be maintained and most will be provided in the digital, adaptive format.
  • Students with extended time will not be allowed to end a section early to advance.
  • For accommodations that cannot be provided digitally (e.g., Braille), students will take a longer, 3-hour, non-digital and non-adaptive exam.
Stage Adaptive, The Basics
  • The adaptive nature of the exam is critical to making it a much shorter test.
  • The digital SAT will also be less speeded than the current test, according to College Board.
  • Each Section will be broken into two stages (or modules) with a pause (not a break) between each stage. Each stage will run about 30-35 minutes. A break will come after the entirety of the first section (two stages). A specific order — (e.g., Does Math always come first or second?) has not yet been shared.
  • The first stage of each section is not adaptive (item difficulty will not “adapt” to a student’s performance). The adaptation occurs with the second stage.
  • At the end of the first stage, the test will choose an appropriate level of difficulty for the second stage. The better a student does on the first stage, the harder the second one will be. This shift in difficulty is critical to getting to an accurate score on a shorter test.
  • The SAT will not be item-adaptive where every question varies based on performance (like the GMAT). It will be stage-adaptive (like the GRE). It will only adapt once for Reading & Writing and only once for Math. This lowers the stakes on any one question and also preserves the ability to go backward and forward within a stage.
Stage Adaptive, The Technicalities
  • Adaptive tests use a form of scoring called Item Response Theory. Questions can have different weights under IRT. They can even have different weights based on score level. The digital test will be better at knowing how well a given question distinguishes one skill level from another and how to value that. IRT can produce an optimized picture of which problems and weightings best place a student into a particular score range.
  • A simple right/wrong tally does not make sense on an adaptive test, which means students will never find out how many questions they got right or wrong. Students will not know exactly how their score was determined. A published scale makes little sense when everyone has taken a different exam.
  • Students will not be given access to their problems, because College Board will re-use some problems in the future. In lieu of QAS releases, additional sample tests will roll out periodically.
Test Security & Technology
  • Students testing together will encounter differing versions of the test, even on the first stages. The test draws from a large pool of problems but the created sets of problems will meet the same content standards and provide an equivalent experience.
  • The risk of a test being compromised is greatly reduced — no more locked drawers, sealed booklets, or delayed mail items.
  • Students at the same site can be started at different times, since there is a greatly reduced risk of sharing problems within a room or during breaks.
  • Students will use the equipment provided by the school or site or bring their own laptop or tablet. They can also incorporate external devices such as a mouse, keyboard, or stylus for personal comfort. College Board will establish a lending programs for students who do not have approved devices.
  • The test will be administered in a locked-down app; students will not be able to open other applications while testing.
  • Students will be expected to arrive with fully charged devices and the testing app pre-installed. Test centers *may* provide power to standard-timed examinees and *must* provide it to those with extended time.
  • Scratch paper will be provided because, for example, the app will not allow for the marking-up of math diagrams. A pencil or pen is fine.
  • Bandwidth requirements are minimal. The entire test is cached and encrypted, so an internet disruption should not prevent the completion of an exam. The exam results can even be uploaded after the test has already been completed. When a proctor says, “Pencils down,” on a paper test, it is difficult to enforce securely. The computer can easily end the student’s exam and keep the results secure.
  • If a power issue stops the test, it can be restarted with a proctor authorization. Deliberately powering down and firing up again is cheating and explicitly forbidden. Cheating tactics that try to exploit the digital form factor are unlikely to work, as College Board effectively has a full transcript of what occurred.
  • Students will have their own timer in the app, so the problem of mistiming by proctors or the lack of notifications should be eliminated.
  • The fact that students end at different times may create disruptions, although College Board maintains that things have gone smoothly during its pilot testing.

RESPONSES AND UPDATES FROM THE ACT:

  • ACT wants to continue to be seen as the reliable option, since the new digital SAT will be the third different SAT offered in just the last 8 years.
  • Rumors of dropping the Science section can be put to rest.
  • The optional Writing section will remain to comply with state contracts and for students testing internationally.
  • Section Retesting is off the table for now.
  • ACT is working on making the test less speeded.
  • Paper exams will remain available even if a digital option is someday provided to all students at national sites. Digital testing at national sites is being considered and they are still working through logistical questions with their site partners.
  • They already offer a digital test abroad and in special administrations domestically, but it is just a version of the paper exam for the computer.
  • ACT has not ruled out adaptive scoring for a revised digital exam.
  • Test site shortage—especially in regions like California—is a known problem with no clear strategic solution. Where ACT has strong traction with state and district testing, it’s less problematic. They have no formula for getting schools to opt back into national testing. Both ACT and College Board are succeeding with school day testing but with the unintended effect of reducing the incentive for those schools to also participate in national testing.

We will add updates should any of this change with the College Board’s release of the test specifications.

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.

11 Comments

  • Jodi Hardy says:

    Thanks for this very helpful and easy to understand summary. Any chance you could make it available as a downloadable pdf? Thanks again.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Jodi,
      Glad to hear that you found it helpful. A PDF is definitely in the works, but we’d like to wait for the official specs to be released so that all of the information is 100% accurate. College Board has been known to work in last minute revisions. We will be sure to provide a link once the PDF is ready.

  • amy says:

    My daughter will be in the situation where she may have a score from both the new and the old SAT test . She wants to start preparing next summer 2023 for the SAT . Truly isn’t fair that it switches in to the new SAT in the Spring. Lets say she takes the test summer/ fall 2024 then wants to take again in the spring , it will be the new test! Are you saying colleges probably won’t superstore them the new with the old!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Amy,
      It’s always unfortunate that when these overhauls happen some students get stuck in the middle.

      It’s wonderful that your daughter will be ready to test in fall 2023. College Board has found that most students start in the spring, which is why they chose Dec/Mar as the split. I’d encourage you to see the upside. First, prep done for the paper SAT is not wasted. Many (most?) of the skills are transferrable. Math, in particular, will be very familiar. Second, it’s an opportunity for your daughter to get a shot at a test on which she might do better. As an analogy, many high-scoring students take both the SAT and ACT. While most will fall in the same range on the two exams, some students outperform on one or the other. We may see the same thing with the digital SAT and paper SAT. Not every student can do better on the digital SAT, because that would be addressed during the equating process. Some students will do better on paper. Some will do better on digital. Your daughter will be in the position of having taken both. The best of all worlds will be if colleges do decide to superscore. I think we’ll see a split, but I’m hesitant to guess the percentages. Some schools will be comfortable with College Board’s claim that the scores are interchangeable. Some schools will not be.

  • Nathalie says:

    If a student takes the new digital version during this week’s SAT school test date but has already taken a paper SAT and will take paper SAT this summer, will the new digital version still be incorporated into a superscore? For example if a student has a 700 score on the first paper SAT and then does 750 on the new digital version during school, will the superscore allow for the 750?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Nathalie,
      That’s an excellent question. Other than making recommendations, College Board has no say in superscoring — it’s completely up to colleges. It’s still too early to know what colleges will choose to do. I’m confident that they will accept digital SAT scores, but less certain about whether they will superscore paper-and-pencil with digital. When the SAT changed 6 years ago, the overhaul was so extensive and the scoring changed enough that old and new scores were not superscored. College Board has made the case that the changes this time do not represent that sort of discontinuity and, I’m sure, will be encouraging colleges to accept scores interchangeably. We just don’t know enough about what colleges will choose to do.

      The digital SAT is being offered in a limited pilot this period, and it sounds like your student is in that pilot. Would it be OK for me to reach out to you via email to find out more about how the experience goes? Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Nathalie,
      I should have mentioned that there is a good chance that your student is not taking the new digital SAT but rather a computer-based version of the current SAT. Those have been around for some time, and some schools offer them during school day testing. That exam is considered the same as any other SAT score, so it would be superscored by colleges just the way a paper-and-pencil exam would be.

  • Ev says:

    Thank you. This is extremely helpful.

  • Stephen says:

    Thanks for the helpful summary of these changes Adam.

  • Shelly says:

    Thank you for helping me make sense of this significant news and continuing to be my go-to source for expertise in testing.

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