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Tutors and Counselors Weigh In on the New Digital SAT

College Board recently announced several major changes to the SAT, including that it will soon become an entirely digital exam. In addition to this, the difficulty of the test will be adaptive, allowing the total test time to be shortened to two hours. Other changes include the elimination of the no-calculator Math section, shorter reading passages and word problems, and an equal number of test dates for US and international students. International students will be the first to take the digital SAT in Spring 2023, followed by a digital PSAT for US students in Fall 2023, and then the digital SAT will be rolled out to all US students in Spring 2024.

The College Board’s announcement comes as no surprise in a pandemic-impacted admissions environment where test-optional policies have become pervasive and online testing and learning have become the norm. By introducing adaptive testing and therefore shortening the exam, College Board surely hopes to gain market share from the ACT and we can anticipate some response from the ACT as well to the decreased relevance of standardized testing in the admissions process. There are several important questions that College Board will need to address with regards to the new, digital SAT. Historically, College Board has provided several full-length practice exams with answers and explanations for free on their website. It will be important to see whether they’re committed to providing the same quantity and quality of practice materials for the new SAT. Given that there are significant changes coming to the exam structure itself, namely adaptive testing, practicing on a computer will be imperative to successful preparation and could therefore be a hinderance to students who don’t have access to a personal computer or reliable, high-speed internet.

For further insight into these recent announcements, we asked our expert IvyWise tutors and counselors to discuss what these changes mean for students, parents, and educators, and what they can do to prepare for this new test.

What are the pros and cons of the new digital format and adaptive testing?

Joey, Master Tutor: There are many unknowns with these changes, representing both an opportunity and a risk to test-takers. While the College Board will work to ensure that scores remain standardized across the board, I expect to see that a number of students will see their scores go up or down significantly. If you turn out to be a student who thrives in this new format, you have struck gold! But as students tend to prefer stability and knowable quantities when preparing for college and major exams, this transition represents a lot of uncertainty.

Because this test is being redesigned from the ground up, it will hopefully be a better fit for the computer format. (By which I mean to say, the ACT’s attempts at sticking its exam on a computer have not been a massive success. Students gain access to some new tools like flagging questions but lose access to other helpful techniques like extrapolating lines on graphs in pencil – and I assume the SAT would avoid such questions to begin with.)

Not necessarily a pro or con, but this will atomize students’ test-taking experiences by design. They will not emerge from a room or find others online talking about how strange Passage #3 on the Reading test was; every student will be their own island. This may make test prep more difficult, I would say. I do not think the GRE has truly great resources that reflect its particular adaptive structure, and I am skeptical of how much better SAT prep materials will be. It might be years before a new strategy book of SAT Prep Black Book-style quality emerges, if ever, as the strategies for lower and higher-scoring students might diverge significantly.

I have written before that sometimes the tutoring tips for these computer-based tests are as small as understanding how the built-in calculator works or knowing to expect a dry-erase board instead of scratch paper. We will not know such minutiae until this exam is being administered.

Adrienne, Master Tutor: One element of the new digital SAT is that it will be removing the no-calculator section. This can be viewed as both a positive and negative. Keeping the no-calculator section on the test forced students into using their algebraic and arithmetic skills by hand, with no room for careless errors or forgetfulness. For example, they had to know how to divide and multiply decimals and fractions by hand – things most students learn in middle school. It will be a relief to many students that they can now rely on their calculators for the entire duration of the Math section of the exam. Additionally, it will allow them to spend more time comprehending the questions rather than trying to remember such things as how to line up decimal points.

As an educator, I think it is important for students to be able to work without a calculator. However, when the students themselves have the choice of whether or not they’d prefer to have their calculators with them, my bet is that they will choose to have the calculator. This shift could help increase the number of students who may have shied away from the SAT in the past because the calculator was not allowed on 20 of the 58 questions (especially those students who don’t naturally prefer math).

Additionally, it has already been reported that students who have taken the new SAT have preferred the new Reading format, which involves only one question per excerpt. For the past six years, some of the Reading passages presented on the SAT have been incredibly dense and difficult for students to understand, especially if they don’t naturally gravitate towards the Reading/Writing section of the exam. As a result, many students shied away from the SAT because of its 65-minute Reading section and moved to the ACT for its shorter, 35-minute, more straightforward Reading section.

Kaitlyn, Master Tutor: A pro of the new digital SAT is that the results come sooner. Students will know how they did within days, instead of weeks. I know many students have anxiety about waiting two weeks for their results.

Another pro is that it is a testing format many students either are already used to (many schools use digital adaptive testing for their yearly assessments) or will need in the future (e.g., for graduate admission exams such as the GRE). As more and more things become digital, students become more confident digital test-takers, a skill that will serve them in college and beyond.

Although I do not fully support it as a math educator, I think allowing students to use the calculator for all parts of the Math section is a pro. I have worked with several students who have trouble with basic math facts but have excellent critical thinking skills. These students will benefit from the use of a calculator. My hope is that, since the calculator is allowed, the questions will focus less on the correct answer and more on the meaning of the answer and why a math concept is important.

A possible con is that since the test is adaptive, there will be no room for students to recover from a series of wrong answers. On the paper test, every student has access to challenging questions. With an adaptive test, if students don’t do well on the first few questions, will they be able to recover from it?

Do you think that these changes will have an impact on the trend of expanding test-optional policies?

Katie, Premier College Admissions Counselor: As colleges continue to evaluate and, I think, retain their test-optional policies, this is a way for the College Board/SAT to continue to stay relevant. I view this shift as a byproduct of expanding test-optional policies⁠—not something that will impact the policies themselves. The SAT has undergone numerous changes over the past 25 years, and I think we will continue to see tweaks and redesigns as the College Board looks to maintain a stake in the world of college admissions.

Christine, Premier College Admissions Counselor: I don’t think these new SAT changes will impact colleges’ test-optional policies. If anything, the directionality is typically colleges’ policies impacting testing organizations. Test-optional is likely to continue to expand for institutional reasons, e.g., encouraging more applications, especially from students for whom standardized testing might be an obstacle. Testing organizations, like the College Board, respond to universities’ policies. Perhaps this new change is partly motivated/accelerated by the expansion of the test-optional policies and the pandemic driving down the number of test-takers.

The new changes may make the test more “relevant” in the sense that our primary and secondary educational systems are becoming increasingly digital in how students are being instructed and assessed (a pre-pandemic trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic and virtual learning). Also, part of the push from the College Board and the ACT is to have more in-school testing; so, if the test is easier to administer for schools, then by its in-school prevalence and accessibility, it could remain relevant.

When these planned changes take effect, will admissions officers still view the SAT and ACT as functionally equivalent?

Katie: This remains to be seen, the College Board and the ACT will have to collaborate to develop a new set of concordance tables, just as they did when the SAT shifted to a 2400 scale in 2006 and back to 1600 in 2016. I suspect admissions officers will continue to view them as comparable and equal as they have for decades. Relatedly, I am surprised that the ACT has yet to follow suit to last year’s SAT change and eliminate their optional Writing section.

Tiffany, Premier College Admissions Counselor: The ACT is likely to respond with changes of its own. Either way, admissions offices accepting tests will likely continue to rely on conversion charts, calibrating the correlation between tests over time.

Christine: As with the prior change in the SAT, admissions offices will continue to accept both the SAT and ACT without preference. However, colleges and the testing organizations will need to revise the current SAT-ACT concordance.

Does digital testing make the SAT more accessible to low-income students or students with learning differences?

Joey: The College Board is certainly arguing that it makes the exam more accessible to low-income students, though, that depends at least in part on how serious their offers are to provide devices to those who need them (as well as how good their “tech support” will actually be). Nonetheless, students with devices and internet access at home will still benefit more from Khan Academy and new digital practice tests.

Regarding learning differences specifically: Students with trouble focusing might find a use for new tools to help direct their attention (like flagging questions to return to) but could just as readily find it more of a challenge to focus on a screen than paper. The shortened exam format is probably the biggest boon to accessibility. However, the exam will still test all the same content that can prove difficult for students with particular learning differences.

Lastly, exam prep will still raise scores, with the guided prep of tutoring raising them the most, which is the main reason standardized testing is likely to forever remain more of a barrier than a lift to low-income students, in my opinion.

Adrienne: The SAT has always done a great job making accommodations possible for all students who need them. Since each learning difference involves different challenges for each student, the SAT will probably continue to review each accommodation on a case-by-case basis. In the past, before College Board removed the essay component for the SAT, most students had to write their essays by hand. One of my students had a cognitive issue where writing was hard for him. The College Board allowed him to type his essay on a computer and graded it as if he had written it by hand.

I don’t think that the new digital SAT will affect students from low-income households, especially in this day and age when so many colleges are encouraging lower-income students to apply. Currently, there are waivers in place that I do not believe would change with the implementation of the online test, and the College Board has plans to provide devices for those students who need them to test.

What can students and educators do to prepare for adaptive testing, and where can they find resources for the new exam?

Adrienne: Khan Academy is going to continue to offer test prep as well as adaptive exams so that all students have access to free assistance. In the past, the College Board has always given free versions of their exam to use. In 2016, when the new digital SAT was rolled out, they provided four practice tests to the public that had been previously tested on prior students. You could purchase a book in stores or online with all four tests or download them online for free.

It sounds as if the College Board will, again, release a few tests so that students can study off of these to feel more prepared for the exam. The larger test prep companies, such as the Princeton Review and Kaplan, will probably create similar online programs/modules as soon as they can to “spiral” the questions (i.e., create similar questions with different numbers, etc) and create their own adaptive testing. There will be a lot of research and development that will need to go into this.

How do you anticipate the ACT will respond to these changes?

Joey: The ACT already has years of experience in computer-based testing internationally and was planning on offering that increasingly in the US starting in September 2020, and the speculation has always been that computerized testing will open the door to student-specific adaptive testing. The ACT was also going to offer section-specific retesting starting in September 2020; COVID kept that from happening, so we’re still waiting to hear what their plans are now.

If the ACT does have adaptive testing in the works, this might pressure them to announce it sooner; certainly, both companies are, as businesses, feeling the heat of test-optional admission policies becoming the norm. It should be noted that a change to adaptive testing will necessitate a change in the format: the SAT is debuting shorter reading passages with only one question attached to each, for instance, not because they’re friendlier but because that more readily allows questions to be sorted by difficulty type and swapped out as needed. Seeing massive changes to the ACT would be quite a shock, but I can imagine international students at least will like to no longer be subjected to a completely different testing experience than their American counterparts.

Adrienne: The current online ACT presents challenges. It still keeps the same time constraints as the paper version, which makes finishing the online test very challenging. Anecdotally, I have a friend who taught an ACT course to students in China wanting to go to college in the US: the students did very well with the paper-and-pencil test on practice exams, but when they took the online version of the ACT, most did significantly worse. As a result, the Chinese school decided to use only the SAT for its students, since it was still in paper-and-pencil form.

The ACT will have to look at the time constraints on that test and see whether an online version makes sense for the way the test is currently set up. Can students truly get to as many questions as they would need to? Should score charts and curves be adjusted? Should the ACT go adaptive instead of the normal ordering of questions?

Additionally, the ACT will have to look at how long its test is. Currently, the ACT is approximately 3 hours long, which is the same as the current SAT. However, with the SAT telling us the new test will be cut down to 2 hours, the ACT will have to compete with that.

What are some other major changes to the SAT that the College Board has made historically, and what impacts did those changes have?

Adrienne: We saw the College Board roll out the new SAT in 2016 (moving from a total of 2400 points, which started in 2005, back down to 1600). It removed the vocabulary questions, which started off every Reading section and forced most students into memorizing some very obscure words. Students could then focus their studying and test prep on handling and dissecting challenging reading passages versus simply memorizing words. The revised SAT also did away with the Essay, which many felt was subjectively graded and should not have played a part in the overall SAT score. Lastly, it introduced a Math section that did not allow students to use their calculators.

It was challenging to get students to take that test in 2016 since no one wanted to be the “guinea pig” for that exam. Consequently, we saw a sizable uptick in the number of students trying the ACT, some of whom had previously shied away from it due to various factors. The ACT had nearly 20 years of prior tests released, as well as numerous course books teaching strategies that students could use to truly study for an exam that was pretty predictable. As a result, the ACT has grown its market share over the last six years as many students realized that the ACT had some significant strengths and consistencies over the SAT.

My hunch is that we will see the same situation here for the first few years as students, families, and test prep companies start to see what data comes about from the first sets of students taking the new adaptive and digital SAT. Unless the ACT plans to roll out an online exam around the same time as the SAT, we may see more students choose to stick with something more predictable, although longer in time. I predict that the ACT will pick up more revenue in 2024-2025 by keeping the test paper-and-pencil for a bit before moving to an online test⁠—almost as if to let SAT be the first one to “work out the kinks.”

Kaitlyn: Another major change in 2016 was that wrong answers would no longer be counted against you. This led to increases in SAT scores and a different approach for students in answering the multiple-choice questions. It will be interesting to see how scores will be calculated with this new adaptive test and whether there will be a return to points lost for wrong answers.

How will these changes impact your guidance for the Class of 2025 and younger when it comes to standardized testing?

Katie: I am still recommending that students plan to make testing a part of their plan, as having a strong test score is never going to be something that hurts a student. It is either neutral or will help them in the college admissions process. There are several circumstances when I see test scores being helpful for students. For students coming from competitive high schools where many students are applying to the same universities, having strong test scores scores will only help. For example, when reviewing two comparatively equal applicants (A average, rigorous curriculum, robust extracurricular resume), if there are no other institutional priorities to tip the scales, as an admissions officer, I would be inclined to take the student with a 1500 over the test-optional student.

Overall, I think the continued changes to standardized testing, both the proliferation of test-optional policies and these recent changes to the SAT, will help lessen the pressure and stress surrounding testing. In an anxiety-ridden process, I hope these changes help make the process a little bit easier for students and their families. I think this enables students to prepare for the tests with lower stakes, see how they do, and then decide whether or not to submit scores versus having to test and submit scores.

Tiffany: It is important to remember that many colleges have gone test-optional but have not gone as far as to eliminate tests altogether. There is still room for tests in this process, and therefore, I would advise younger students to keep their options open by continuing to make test prep a part of their strategies.

Christine: I would continue to advise students to incorporate preparing for the SAT or ACT, and the timeline of when they can take these exams does not really change, e.g., junior year. While test scores offer just a data point, students should consider submitting any optional component that could potentially bolster their applications.

When navigating the college admissions process, it’s important that families stay up-to-date with the latest news and advice. Here at IvyWise, our team of expert counselors and tutors works hard to ensure our college counseling recommendations and test prep strategies reflect the most current state of college admissions. For more information on our tutoring services or college counseling programs, contact us today!

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