Digital SAT: Why is it happening? And what does it mean for the future of standardized testing?

It’s old news now. Starting internationally in 2023 (2024 in the US) the SAT is going all digital, and, in the process, changing in myriad other ways.

In January, the College Board’s sudden announcement generated attention-grabbing headlines and a fair amount of questions from parents, students, counselors, and educators. We’ve previously tackled some of those big initial questions, and we’ve taken a longer look at the questions around what it means for the SAT’s difficulty to be going adaptive. Still, behind everything we’ve already covered is a bigger, almost existential question: Why? Why these changes? Why now? Why such a sudden shift?

The answer not only explains the current state of standardized testing, it also gives us a sense of what to expect from the College Board and ACT next.

First, the changes aren't all that sudden.

The College Board has been talking for years about plans to move away from a paper-based test. In 2020, they even announced, then unannounced an online at-home test. In the meantime, they’ve experimented with digital versions of other tests. When the College Board made AP exams digital in 2020, a lot went wrong. But after some thoughtful changes and improvements, the digital exams in 2021 went much more smoothly. In hindsight, these other digital tests seem to have been dry runs for the SAT’s digital redesign.

But why the change at all?

This isn’t the first time the SAT has changed, and it probably won’t be the last. In fact, this is the third major redesign the test has undergone in recent years. In 2005, they added the essay, dropped analogies, and changed the total score from 1600 to 2400. In 2015, they went back to 1600, made the essay optional, and changed much of the style and content of questions in each section. The stated rationale for each big change is slightly different—whether it’s to make the test easier to take, more inclusive and fair, or more predictive of success in college.

Yet, experience has brought us to a more cynical conclusion. Every redesign boils down to the same thing: Changing the test is a bid for its continued relevance. The changes in 2005 were made (at least in part) to counter the growing popularity of the rival ACT. The 2015 redesign was made to appeal to school districts looking for a Common Core test to satisfy federal testing needs. Of course, it’s not 2015 anymore, and the worldwide pandemic has fundamentally changed the standardized testing landscape. But even as universities switch to test blind and test optional, what still matters most to the College Board is to appeal to the consumer—in 2022, that means students. In the admissions process, many students are still looking to standardized tests as a way to give their applications an edge. By making the SAT shorter and easier to administer, the College Board positions it as a more attractive alternative to its chief competitor, the ACT, which still has an optional essay and is over three hours long.

It's a turf war.

And yet, even though the College Board may be making these changes primarily to assert their dominance in the standardized testing world, if they’re able to deliver on their promises, students are the ones who will benefit most. Given the company’s track record—improving on Digital AP testing and rolling out online resources through its partnership with Khan Academy—we expect the new test to do much of what they promise it will. Here are the biggest selling points:

  • It’ll be shorter. Not just overall, but the passages on the Reading section are shrinking and going from about ten questions each to just one.
  • It’ll be more secure. Currently, if a single paper test form is compromised, entire groups of students could have their tests cancelled. This has been a big problem in the past—security breaches have caused widespread test cancellations across entire countries when paper copies have leaked. Digital testing allows students at the same test center to take different versions or variations of a test.
  • It’ll be more efficient to administer. Paper tests need to be packaged, shipped, and unpacked. Then, test materials and bubble sheets need to be re-packed, shipped, unpacked once again, and scanned. Digital exams eliminate that hassle, making it easier and faster to administer and score exams.
  • Students will get their scores quicker. So there should be less stress about hitting early application deadlines.

How will ACT respond?

Of course, we don’t expect ACT will take this lying down. ACT’s past behavior hints at what they’ll do next.

In recent years, they have made several abortive attempts to stay relevant and competitive with the SAT. To compete with the SAT’s partnership with Khan Academy, ACT launched their own free prep through ACT Academy—and then quietly discontinued it. They started non-adaptive computer-based testing internationally, and they announced in 2019 that, starting in 2020, they would roll out the computer-based test in the US, along with a raft of other attractive changes, such as the option for students to selectively retake certain sections of the test, rather than having to take the full 3+ hour exam every time. The pandemic indefinitely delayed their plans.

We can make some educated guesses about what’s next.

Most likely, ACT will hasten to drop the optional essay (as the College Board already has). This is the easiest way for them to make the test shorter and more attractive to students. It’s possible but less likely they could try shortening the other sections by cutting an English passage or cutting some of the Math questions, but for them to really shorten the test, they would need to make it adaptive too, and we know ACT has been less strong on the tech side than the College Board, so this is unlikely to happen soon.

When they do make an announcement, it’s likely that will also include an updated timeline for introducing some of the changes for the test that they first teased in 2019.

Will this affect test prep?

“No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices”— words spoken in 2014 by David Coleman, the College Board’s CEO, as he touted the exam’s redesign. The implication was that this new test would in some way be test-prep-proof—a sentiment expressed with practically every major redesign. And, of course, it’s patently untrue.

So long as there is a predictable design to the test, meaning recurring question types and patterns to the content being tested—there will be tricks and strategies to learn, and students will be able to prep for it.

As the SAT and ACT change, expert tutors will adapt, employing new strategies and resources to make sure that students are prepared for all the tests might throw at them.


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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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