SAT is going digital: Exam will be online-only, shorter as colleges ditch standardized tests

Put down the pencils and grab your laptop: The SAT, one of the nation’s most commonly used college-entrance exams, is going digital.

The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, PSAT and other standardized tests, announced the change Tuesday. The shift to online exams won't happen until 2024 for American students. International students will start testing virtually in 2023.

For decades, the SAT – or its competitor, the ACT – was required to apply to traditional colleges. The tests' ubiquity have faded in recent years as more colleges have ditched the exams as a prerequisite for admissions.

The test-optional movement started before the pandemic, but the coronavirus shutdowns spurred even more universities to pause or drop their testing requirements. According to Fair Test: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit critical of the SAT, 80% of the roughly 2,300 four-year colleges aren't requiring the exam for high school students in the graduating class of 2022. About 2.2 million high schoolers in the class of 2020 took the exam, but that number plummeted to 1.5 million for the class of 2021, as requirements loosened and pandemic-related closures affected the test's availability.

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Critics of the test say it disproportionately favors wealthy students who have the time and resources to take test-prep courses and sit for the exam multiple times, compared with their poorer peers. Test advocates, including the College Board, say it helps connect low-income students to colleges or scholarships that might otherwise pass them over.

How is the SAT changing to go digital?

The new SAT test will feel familiar to those who have already taken the exam. It will still be scored on a 1600 scale, and students will still have to take the test in proctored settings, such as a school or testing center. It still has multiple-choice sections.

But the College Board said the switch to the digital version will offer benefits to those taking and administering the test. For starters, the test will run about two hours, trimmed from the roughly three hours it takes now.

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The digital test is shorter because it relies on adaptive testing, said Priscilla Rodriguez, a College Board vice president. That means the test changes based on the students' answers, with the goal of reducing the time students spend answering questions that are either too easy or too hard.

"That allows for more efficient testing to get the same assessment of the skills and knowledge," Rodriguez said.

The reading sections will be shorter and more closely related to material students would likely read in college. Students will be able to use calculators during the entire math section, an expansion from previous versions of the test.

Natalia Cossio, 16, has only ever taken the SAT digitally, though she has been hearing about the test since she was in middle school. The junior at South County High School in Lorton, Virginia, was part of a pilot group of students who took the SAT digitally last year, with the chance of winning a $100 gift card. (The College Board connected Cossio with a USA TODAY reporter.)

Cossio had taken the PSAT, essentially a practice version of the exam given to students earlier in their high school careers, with traditional paper and pencil.

She borrowed her father’s iPad and headed to a nearby high school to take the SAT. Students were still spaced apart, and proctors were in the room. Cossio said she was told proctors could see her screen.

She didn’t have to bubble in the individual letters for her name at the top of her exam booklet. Instead, she opened the app and logged in. A countdown clock was also available on the screen. Cossio said it “kept her focused.”

Students can decide whether SAT is worthwhile

The digital format will be easier to administer, the College Board said, because schools will no longer have to worry about shipping or receiving the tests. Plus, the company said, the virtual format will mean students get their test scores back in days as opposed to weeks.

It’s a promising pitch, but the College Board’s rollout of digital offerings hasn’t always been smooth. Students and parents reported running into technical mishaps when the company offered its Advanced Placement exams virtually near the start of the pandemic.

Nathan Chasse, a student in New Hampshire, got this error message during his online AP exam in 2020, when he wasn't able to upload his work within the time window.
Nathan Chasse, a student in New Hampshire, got this error message during his online AP exam in 2020, when he wasn't able to upload his work within the time window.

Rodriguez said the early struggles with the initial online offering of the AP exams helped College Board better prepare the digital SAT. The digital version won’t penalize students if their personal computer loses power or they’re disconnected from the internet during the test, she said.

And if students don't have a computer, the College Board said it will provide a loaner on the day of the test.

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The company may have bigger concerns than the reliability of local school districts' internet connections. Fewer and fewer colleges require the SAT, and it's still unclear if those that offered temporary flexibility at the pandemic's start will go back to requiring tests. Some states, such as Colorado or Illinois, have even passed laws mandating public colleges go test-optional.

Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of Fair Test, was skeptical of the new format and described it as a marketing ploy.

"Shifting an unnecessary, biased, coachable, and poorly predictive multiple-choice exam that few schools currently require from pencil-and-paper delivery to an electronic format does not magically transform it into a more accurate, fairer or valid tool for assessing college readiness," Schaeffer said in a statement.

Rodriguez said the College Board's decision to adopt a digital format for the exam wasn't driven by the test-optional movement. But the reality is most colleges are test-optional for the foreseeable future. So the company's goal was to create a test that was as "flexible and accessible as possible, so that any students who wants to can take it and then decide: Is that a score they want to put forward?" Rodriguez said.

Cossio is unsure if she'll include test scores along with her college application, but she says part of the calculus depends on the score. "If they're really impressive," she said, "why not?"

Clarification: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the use of calculators on the paper version of the SAT. Calculators are allowed on some, but not all, of the math questions on the paper test. They will be allowed on all math questions in the digital version.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SAT digital: College admission test to go online, get shorter by 2024