March 2024 digital SAT: Was Math harder than usual?

As students around the world finished the March 2024 SAT, word began to spread of an unexpectedly difficult second Math module.

March 9 was the first weekend administration of the digital SAT in the US, and it’s worth noting that for many students, this was their first time sitting for an adaptive test. International students switched to the new version of the exam last year—and had similar reactions to the March 2023 SAT, too. Still, though we know the second Math module is intended to include higher-difficulty questions, some of the counselors and students we work with, both in the US and internationally, reported that the second module was especially tough in March.

Here's what we know after taking a closer look at ArborBridge students' March SAT scores.

How did students actually do?

Our students performed as expected. Overall, students' official scores were even higher than they were last March and very similar to the scores they earned on their last practice tests taken in the weeks leading up to the official exam.

Our students who took Bluebook practice tests in the four weeks before the March exam saw an average difference of only 15 points between their practice test scores and their official scores in Math. Students who took ArborBridge practice tests (developed internally by our own team of experts) saw even more accurate Math scores—only 7 points off from their official scores. According to our preliminary data, students were more likely to score higher on Bluebook practice tests than on their official tests—which could have contributed to their sense that the real thing was harder—but not by much. Furthermore, for 86% of our students, March 2024 was their very first official exam; it's not uncommon for students to score slightly lower than expected the first time around as they face the heightened pressure of test day.

Why did it feel harder?

We weren’t surprised to hear that some students felt this test was extra challenging. In fact, before the SAT went digital, we'd often hear from paper test-takers that certain exams were especially hard, despite those exams appearing normal when copies were later released.

In this case, on top of the fact that we always see a lot of first-time test-takers in March—meaning this was the first high-stakes testing experience for a majority of students—this was the first nationwide administration of a digital, adaptive exam. That's a lot of new factors to adjust to!

Still, there are a few reasons why Math in particular might have seemed unexpectedly difficult:

1. The pacing of the second module is tough. Most high-scoring students have a lot of time left over after the first module. This can give them a false sense of security heading into the second module. Unfortunately, those higher-difficulty questions not only are more time-consuming but also increase in difficulty as the module goes on. All of this happens at the very end of the test, when many students are already becoming mentally fatigued. Suddenly, the questions are getting harder and taking more time—a stressful situation, especially for students sitting for their first official test.

And, in the most recent Bluebook practice tests released after the March exam, we’ve seen that some word problems have become lengthier again, a notable shift after the College Board initially announced its efforts to make word problems much shorter. So, it's possible that the higher-difficulty problems on the March exam took a bit more time to read, which affected students' pacing and added to the time crunch at the end of the exam.

2. Some questions required an extra step or used bigger numbers. We haven’t heard specific reports yet of entirely new or more advanced concepts than what's appeared on past exams and College Board materials. But, from what we've heard, some questions tested concepts in more challenging ways, requiring an extra step or two to arrive at the answer, or, as noted above, used more words to describe a scenario. 

Using bigger numbers was another way the College Board upped the difficulty level of questions. For example, while we've seen the occasional question about the sum of the internal angles of a polygon (and we include it on the math formula sheet our tutors share with ArborBridge students), it can be intimidating for a student to be asked to calculate the sum of the internal angles of a polygon with a lot more sides than they're used to. Even if they'd simply plug that number into the same formula they'd normally use, seeing a huge number could be a surprise and cause a student to panic if they're already stressed or in a rush at the end of the exam.

What are our takeaways?

Adaptive testing is a new experience for most students and requires a shift in mindset and strategy. Students should mentally prepare themselves for a challenging second module—and stay calm and break down a question into small pieces if something about it looks more intimidating. They probably have the math knowledge they need to solve it; they simply need to keep a clear head and apply what they know.

Finally, the risk of any new test is that everyone is working off of limited information and practice materials in the early months. At ArborBridge, we try to proactively predict where new content might appear—and our practice tests include that potential material—but the reality is that the College Board is still calibrating its questions and algorithm, and we’re still waiting for the College Board to publish more official practice tests and further details about how the scoring algorithm works. The good news is that everyone is in the same boat, scores remain strong, and we’ll continue to share updates as we gather more information. As always, students who stick to a consistent test prep plan and maximize the resources available to them will put themselves in the best possible position for success.

This is where our experts can help.

At ArborBridge, our tutors have years of experience tutoring students for adaptive tests, such as the GRE and GMAT. We’ve helped international students prepare for the digital SAT since the pilot test dates in 2022, and we have our own lineup of practice tests designed to prepare students for high-difficulty questions beyond those they'll see in the Bluebook tests. Reach out to us here to get started.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, or want to start working with a tutor who specializes in the digital SAT, reach out to us 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.

You also might like: