A counselor's guide to the digital SAT: What is adaptive testing?

The biggest news in the testing world is that the SAT has gone digital. While some things are staying the same—the exam still tests Verbal and Math skills, and the total score is still 1600—much has changed. The new SAT is digital, adaptive, and a full hour shorter.

As a counselor, you probably have questions about what this means for the families you advise: What are the important changes? When should my students take it? What about admissions offices—will they still accept the new test?

We have answers.

In this series of posts, we’ll answer your biggest questions about the new SAT. For a video version of this post, click below.

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What is adaptive testing?

Adaptive tests analyze a student’s performance and respond in real time, calibrating to each student’s skill level in order to zero in on their score more quickly. If a student is doing well on an adaptive test, the test responds by giving them harder questions that are worth more points. On the other hand, if a student answers enough questions incorrectly, the test will give them easier questions that are worth fewer points.

Adaptive testing itself isn’t new. Some tests, like the GMAT, are adaptive by question, making adjustments throughout: every time a student answers a question, the next question changes based on whether the student answered the previous question correctly.

Other tests, like the GRE, calibrate themselves differently, starting with a section of moderate or mixed difficulty, and based on the student’s performance there, they’re given a second section of harder, medium or easier difficulty.

How does adaptive testing work on the SAT?

The digital SAT will be more similar to that second scenario, with two sections—the first, a combined Reading & Writing; the second, Math—each split into two sets of questions, called modules. Each section’s first module will include a mix of easy, medium, and hard questions. How the student does on these questions will determine the difficulty level of the second module in that section. 

The student’s performance on the first module will also lock their score for that section into a certain range. The College Board has not openly shared the precise scoring, but we can make some educated guesses about how it works, using scoring ranges we’ve estimated from the released exams.

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For example, if a student has a strong performance on the first math module, they might have the opportunity to score within the 440-800 range on that section as a whole, whereas if they don’t answer enough questions correctly on the first module, it might not be possible to make up enough ground on the second to break 600.

Why is the SAT changing?

The change means the test can be a full hour shorter—down from 3 hours to 2—yet still be an accurate measure of a student’s skill level. 

For some students, especially those with limited test-taking endurance, the shorter test will be a much more attractive option than the ACT, which is still more than 3 hours long and has no plans to change its format any time soon.

Is the test still fair?

The College Board claims that the new test is just as effective a measure of a student’s abilities as the old paper-based exam. As test prep experts, we believe them.

The way the College Board is approaching the adaptive element of the exam—with an algorithm that accounts for question type and difficulty, utilizing testing data from the more than 35,000 students who participated in pilot test dates—makes us optimistic that students will receive scores on the new digital test that are comparable to what they would have scored on the old paper test.

One worry we tend to hear about adaptive tests like this is that if a student bombs the first question set, they can recover somewhat but can’t totally recover. But that could have been the case on the paper exam as well; if a student really struggles with the paper test’s first Math section, they might not be able to make up for it on the next section. So we don’t want this change to an adaptive model to cause undue stress or for students to focus too much on trying to guess which question set they got for the second module and what scoring range they’re in. We want students to focus on one question, one step at a time.

Is the adaptive test right for my student?

Students who tend to start tests strong should benefit from this change to the SAT. They’ll be rewarded by a strong performance on that first module and a higher score overall.

Students with test-taking anxiety or who need time to warm up and find their groove could have a harder time with the new test. However, the new test gives students additional time to answer each question, which should help alleviate some of the pressure they experience on test day and provide them with some wiggle room to settle in.

Either way, adaptive testing is going to have an impact on students’ test-taking strategy because it’s a new kind of test for most high schoolers. ArborBridge’s tutoring team has a ton of experience in this area, and we are ready to prepare students to adjust their approach.

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.

Jordan Browne

About Jordan Browne

In addition to graduating summa cum laude from Emerson College and holding an M.F.A. from Columbia University, Jordan was a Fulbright scholar to Montenegro, where he taught seven courses for the University of Montenegro. Along with teaching writing, rhetoric, and literature at the college level, Jordan has taught test prep for several years in New York public schools and across three continents. Ever since he was young, he’s been the weird one who actually enjoys standardized tests, and, for several years now, he’s taught students of every skill level and background how to like them too—or, at least, how to get the scores they need.

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