Digital SAT: What is adaptive testing, and what does it mean for me?

Updated June 2023

The biggest news in the testing world is that the SAT has begun its transition to a shorter, digital format. Perhaps the most dramatic change is the adaptive testing model the new exam follows.

For most high school students, the digital SAT will be the first adaptive test they'll take and will require them to adjust their usual test-taking strategies. Here's what we know about adaptive testing and how we expect it to affect students prepping for the new SAT.

What is adaptive testing?

Adaptive tests calibrate to each student's level, measuring a student's performance in the moment in order to quickly zero in on a score. This is how the College Board plans to continue to assign SAT scores on a 1600-point scoring scale despite making the exam shorter and presenting students with fewer questions.

Adaptive tests have been around for a while at the graduate level. Some tests, like the GMAT, are adaptive by question, meaning the difficulty level of the exam shifts every time you answer a question. Other tests, like the new SAT, evaluate a test-taker's performance across a set of questions at a time.

Here's how this works on the digital SAT:

  • Each section of the exam will be split into two "modules" or question sets. You'll start with an introductory module of questions covering a variety of concepts and difficulty levels.
  • How you perform on the first module will determine the difficulty level of your second module. If you perform well on the first module, you'll see harder questions on the second module, and your performance on the second module will determine the exact score you end up with.

Keep in mind that the new SAT is section-adaptive. Both sections will be split into two modules, but your performance on the Reading & Writing section will not affect your performance on the Math section that follows.

What does this mean for students?

On an adaptive test, how you do on that first set of questions has a large impact on your overall score. Students who start strong will benefit from this change to the exam. However, the adaptive testing model can be a challenge for students who need time to warm up and find their groove at the start of an exam.

Adaptive tests can also add another layer of stress to test day and cause students to overthink the questions they encounter as the exam progresses. If you’re already stressed by the test, feel like you aren’t doing well, and then the second module seems less difficult, it can be easy to panic or second guess yourself. On the flip side, it can be intimidating to work through a set of the hardest questions—even if that's actually a sign you're doing well.

The good news is that these challenges aren't new and won't require major changes to how students prep for the SAT. You'll still want to study much of the same content and plan to sit for practice tests before you take the real thing. Here's why:

  • Although you're not guaranteed to see a question on every topic on an adaptive test, you'll need to be prepared for whatever content might be selected to appear in your individual modules.
  • Practice tests are important opportunities for students to become comfortable with the adaptive, two-module format. The College Board has released four full-length, adaptive practice tests through the Bluebook app, and ArborBridge's team has written additional practice tests, which are available through our own dSAT platform.

Finally, consider working with a tutor if you're anxious about how to approach an adaptive test. Test prep tutors have seen adaptive tests in action for decades and already have well-worn strategies to help students handle the extra stress associated with adaptive testing.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

About Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

As one of the highest-performing tutors in ArborBridge’s history, Erin coaches tutors and develops tools and trainings to disrupt old habits and empower new strengths. With a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University, Erin worked as a classroom teacher and student services director prior to joining ArborBridge in 2017. Her decade of success as an educator has prepared her to ensure that programs are tailored to individual students’ needs.

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