The PSAT and SAT soon will be taken by college-bound students only by computer. The transition from paper-based to digital testing affirms the continuing relevance and usefulness of standardized tests in the test optional, post-pandemic era.
There is likely to be a significant increase in the number of SAT-takers when conversion to the digital model is complete. According to a survey taken by the College Board as part of its pilot program, 80% of test-takers indicated that they preferred digital tests because they found them to be less stressful.
Although less than perfect, standardized tests are a pragmatic means of leveling the playing field for the students of nearly 27,000 American high schools, ranging widely in curriculum options, academic rigor, and grading systems. The tests enable students to demonstrate their ability beyond what’s indicated by their GPA and curriculum — the most important factors in admissions. Although submitting test scores is now optional at many colleges, most still use standardized test scores as a way to identify promising students.
- Facts About the Digital Tests
The pandemic caused students and educational institutions to adapt to learning and testing in a digital environment. The College Board is taking advantage of this fact by adopting digital testing. Below is an overview of their digital PSAT/SAT products:
- Who Will Take the Tests
Students now in tenth grade, the high school Class of 2025, will be the first to take the digital PSAT in the fall of this year with the same three variations that are offered in the paper-based 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 the spring of 2024, will be taken by current tenth graders as well as students in lower grades who wish to take it. Students can take only the paper SAT through the end of 2023.
- How and Where Students Will Take the Tests
Digital tests will not be taken by students in their home via the Internet. They will only be taken in a test center. Students may use a Chromebook, a MAC or Windows laptop, or an iPad tablet. They may use their own device or one provided by the test center if they make a request in advance through the test registration process.
An Internet connection is required for the test. Test-takers will need to connect to the test center’s Wi-Fi with their personal or test center-provided devices in order to allow for online communication to and from College Board.
Students will use the center’s network link to download and install a personalized software program from College Board for the test. The program prevents the test-taker from using other features of their device while working on the test.
Because each test-taker receives their own personalized program for the test, security and privacy are better in the digital system than the paper-based system. Question #10 on one student’s test is different than Question #10 on another student’s, making cheating more difficult and testing more secure.
A calculator integrated within the downloaded program will be available for the duration of the test. There will no longer be a Math subsection that prohibits the use of a calculator. A hide-able integrated 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 does not lose time. A set of annotation tools will be included within the program so students can take notes and highlight or cross out text.
- Scoring Range Remains the Same but Test Timing Changes
As in the current system, PSAT scores will range from 320 to 1520 points and the SAT from 400 to 1600.
The time allowed for the PSAT and SAT digital tests will be 2 hours and 14 minutes, which is more than an hour less than what the current tests allow. There will be two distinct Verbal subsections, 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 developing future tests. There will no longer be a break between Reading and Writing in the Verbal section.
There will be two separate Math subsections—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 call for student-produced responses, will be mixed in with multiple choice questions, unlike the current SAT in which there is a distinct subsection for grid-in questions.
- Question Formats Will Change Slightly
In both the PSAT and SAT, the subject matter of the Math and Verbal sections will remain the same. The full range of problem-solving and data analysis topics that are covered in the Math section of current SAT will be on the digital test. However, there will be fewer problem solving and data analysis questions (which cover percentages, probability, organizing data, and basic statistics) than there are on the current test.
In the Verbal section, 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 poetry 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).
- Multistage Adaptive Methodology
A significant innovation on the digital SAT is its Multistage Adaptive Methodology, which is enabled by the flexibility inherent in computer systems and software. Students will begin their initial 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 College Board’s downloaded program. If the student scores high on them, he or she will be given more challenging questions for the rest of the section. If the student does not perform well, he or she will be given less difficult questions. Performance on the first few questions dictates the range of possible scores that a student can receive.
- Accommodations for the Digital Tests
The same accommodations available under the paper-based system will be available for the digital tests. Most are integrated within the student’s personalized, downloaded program. When a student signs in at the test center, their program will recognize previously approved accommodations and will provide them for the test. The timer, for example, will be extended for those students who have been granted extra time. A screen will indicate if an extra break has been scheduled. A student’s screen will have larger print if that accommodation has been approved.
As is the case now, students must be approved for accommodations by the Services for Students with Disabilities panel at College Board. This is done in advance through the test registration process so that the Board can include the accommodation(s) in the student’s personalized program.
- Paper Test Content and Digital Test Content
There are no differences in content scope between the paper and digital tests for either the Verbal or Math sections of the PSAT and SAT. The level of difficulty is equivalent. The only differences are in the media and technology used to take them.
College Board is recommending that colleges superscore between and among paper and digital versions until the conversion to digital is complete. 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 colleges to combine the two high scores into one superscore.
- Practicing for Digital Tests
Four full-length adaptive digital practice tests are available through Bluebook, College Board’s test delivery platform. Students who have downloaded Bluebook will be able to take the practice tests using the same interface, format, and scoring methodology that they will use for the actual digital SAT starting in 2024.
- Practice Test Tips
Students should guess on practice tests if they don’t know an answer because incorrect answers will not be penalized. They should refer to the scoring guide after the test because it has explanations of answers and is designed to guide students in identifying areas for study.
In traditional testing on the SAT, the total number of correct answers corresponds directly to a 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. This is the method used to score digital tests.
- Insights on the Math and Verbal Sections
Jed Applerouth, an educational consultant, has researched the digital SAT by administering practice tests to his student-clients. He concluded that the structural changes adopted to make the test shorter, adaptive, and slower-paced will make it more popular with students and educators.
Regarding the Math section, Applerouth’s summary is, “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 summary is, “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 ACT have essentially been different versions of the same thing. Both have measured the cognitive abilities and readiness for college of test-takers. However, this similarity will end with the advent of the digital SAT.
The College Board is advancing technologically in an effort to change with the times. ACT’s strategy is to continue on as a paper-based system. Since almost all colleges that accept tests will accept either one, the divergence in testing technology will afford students the option to choose which approach suits them best.