Digital SAT Brings Many Changes to Current Test

by Alex Braun ‘23

As technology advances and the coronavirus makes in-person work and school difficult, more of our lives are moving online. This is true of the SAT, which in 2023 will become internationally taken in a digital format, and become digital in the United States in 2024. On April 9, I took a digital SAT as part of a study done by the College Board and, while there are vague similarities, for the most part it feels like a completely different test than the current paper version.

The similar elements are the topics. There are reading, writing/language, and math categories, and within those categories, the same type of questions one would see on a paper and pencil SAT. For the reading and writing/language section, there are questions asking main ideas, style questions, word choice, grammar changes, and other elements present on the current SAT format for that section. For the math section, the questions are on the same subjects, asking about algebra and geometry mostly.

Where the test diverges from the current format is in the structure and time. The current paper SAT has four sections: Reading, Writing/Language, Math (Without Calculator), and Math (With Calculator) and takes about 3-3.5 hours. The new SAT has the two sections of reading/writing and math and takes only about two hours. Within the sections, the format gets more and more different from the paper and pencil version.

In the reading/writing section, the entire section is divided into two parts, or as the College Board calls them, modules. Each module is 27 questions and 32 minutes long. If a student finishes the module early, they cannot move forward but can check their answers, but when the timer for that module runs out they are automatically advanced to the next module, whether they are done or not. Both modules of the section are nearly identical in tested skills, just with different passages and excerpts. While the current reading section on the test has five passages with 11 questions per passage, this digital SAT has one question for every passage. The passages are much shorter and students never see the same one twice. Additionally, questions on similar skills are grouped together. When I took the test there were five to six questions on a topic like word choice, followed by five to six on main idea, more questions on grammar, etc.

After the reading section, there is a 10-minute break before the math section when test takers can go to the bathroom, eat a snack if they brought one, drink water, stretch, or talk about non test related topics. The breaks are essentially the exact same in both the current and the digital SAT.

In the math section, there are two modules with 22 questions each and 35 minutes to complete each module. Unlike the current test, the digital one allows a calculator for all of the math questions. The math section has the same style questions as the paper and pencil SAT, but questions on different topics are scattered throughout rather than grouped together like in the reading/writing section. However, unlike the paper and pencil SAT, the free response questions are not located at the very end of the section or module, and are instead scattered throughout just like any other question. They allow up to four characters and seemingly appear more often on the second module of the math section.

The College Board will provide testing devices when they roll out the digital SAT in 2024, which helps those who don’t have a device of their own to take the test with equal opportunity. Whether or not it is “better” or “easier,” this change is one that all students will have to come to embrace in the coming years, beginning with current freshmen when they begin to take SATs in their Junior year.