Students Can Prepare for Digital Testing

The PSAT and SAT soon will be taken by college-bound students only by computer. The transition from paper-based to digital testing affirms the continuing relevance and usefulness of standardized tests in the test optional, post-pandemic era.

There is likely to be a significant increase in the number of SAT-takers when conversion to the digital model is complete. According to a survey done by the College Board as part of a pilot program, 80% of test-takers indicated that they preferred digital tests, mainly because they found them to be less stressful.

Although less than perfect, standardized tests are a pragmatic means of leveling the playing field for student at over 26,000 American high schools, which range widely in curriculum options, academic rigor, and grading systems. The tests enable students to demonstrate their abilities beyond what’s indicated by their GPA/curriculum — the most important factor in admissions. Although submitting test scores is now optional at most colleges, standardized testing is still a useful method of identifying promising students.

1. Facts About the Digital Tests

The pandemic caused students and educational institutions to adapt to learning and testing in a digital environment. The College Board is taking advantage of this movement by adopting digital testing. Below is an overview of their digital PSAT/SAT products:

  • Who Will Take the Tests

    Students now in tenth grade, the high school class of 2025, will be the first to take the digital PSAT in the fall of this year. There will be the same three variations in the digital PSAT offered in the paper-based test: PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10, and PSAT 8/9.

    Most high school students take the SAT for the first time in spring of their junior year. The first digital SAT, set for March of 2024, will be taken by current tenth graders as well as students in lower grades who wish to take it. Students may take only the paper SAT through the end of 2023.​

  • How and Where Students Will Take the Tests

    Digital tests will not be taken by individual students in their home via the Internet. Students will only be able to take them in a test center. They may use a Chromebook, MAC or Windows laptop, or iPad tablet. They may use their own device or one provided by the test center​ if they have requested one in advance through the test registration process.

    An Internet connection is required for the test. Test-takers will connect to the test center’s Wi-Fi with their personal or College Board-provided devices in order to permit network traffic to and from College Board. The password for Wi-Fi will be displayed so students can connect through the network to the College Board.

    Students at the test center will download and install a software program from College Board for the test. The program prevents the test-taker from using other features of their device while working on the test.

    Security and privacy are better in digital than in paper-based systems. Each test-taker receives their own personalized program for their test. This means that Question #10 on one student’s test is different than Question #10 on another student’s, making cheating more difficult and the testing process more secure.

    A calculator integrated within the downloaded program will be available for the duration of the test. There will no longer be a Math subsection that prohibits the use of a calculator as there is now. A hide-able integrated timer will be displayed at the top of the page on which the student is working. If there is a disruption, the timer will pause and can later be reset by the proctor so that the test-taker will not lose time. A set of annotation tools will be integrated within the program so that students may take notes and highlight or cross out text.

  • Scoring Range Remains the Same but Test Timing Changes

    As in the current system, PSAT scores will range from 320 to 1520​ points and the SAT from 400 to 1600​.

    The time allowed for the PSAT and SAT digital tests will be 2 hours and 14 minutes, which is nearly one hour less than what the current tests allow.​ There will be two distinct Verbal subsections, each lasting 32 minutes and having 27 questions. Only 25 of the 27 questions will be scored. The other two are experimental questions used for research purposes by College Board in developing future tests. There will no longer be a break between Reading and Writing in the Verbal section.

    There will be two separate Math subsections—each will last for 35 minutes and have 22 questions. Only 20 of the 22 questions will be scored with the other two being experimental. Grid-in questions, which call for student-produced responses, will be mixed in with multiple choice questions, unlike the current SAT in which there is a distinct subsection for the grid-in questions. Instead of choosing a correct answer from choices, students will solve problems and the enter answers in grids on the screen.

  • Content Will Have Few Changes​

    In both the PSAT and SAT, the content of the Math and Verbal sections will remain the same. The full range of problem solving and data analysis topics that are covered in the Math section of current SAT will be on the digital test. However, there will be fewer problem solving and data analysis questions (which cover percentages, probability, organizing data, and basic statistics) than there are on the current test.

    In the Verbal section of the SAT, there will no longer be long passages with multiple questions to answer about each one. Each question will have its own short passage, and the question will be for that short passage only. Passages will be standard prose comprehension with poetry and logical completion items. In the latter, students will read a short passage, the last line of which has been left blank. The student will then choose from among four options the one that best completes the passage​. Reading and writing items will be clustered—several reading, followed by several writing (either grammar or expression).

  • Multistage Adaptive ​Methodology

    A significant change on the digital SAT is its Multistage Adaptive ​Methodology, which is enabled by the flexibility inherent in computer systems and software. Students will begin their initial Math and Verbal sections with questions researched to be at an average level of difficulty. The student’s device scores these questions immediately using the College Board’s downloaded program. If the student scores high on them, he or she will be given more challenging questions for the rest of the section. If the student does not perform well, he or she will be given less difficult questions for the rest of the section​. Performance on the first few questions dictates the range of possible scores that a student can receive​.

  • Accommodations for the Digital Tests​

    The same accommodations will be facilitated for the digital PSAT and SAT as are available under the current paper test system. For the most part, they are integrated within the student’s personalized, downloaded program. When a student signs in, their program will recognize their previously approved accommodations and will make them available in the test. The timer, for example, will be extended for those students who have been granted extra time. A screen will indicate if an extra break has been scheduled. A student’s screen may have larger print if that accommodation has been approved.

    As is the case now, the student must be approved for an accommodation by the Services for Students with Disabilities panel at College Board. This is done in advance through the registration process so that the Board can include the accommodation in the student’s personalized program.

  • Paper Test Content vs. Digital Test Content

    There are no differences in scope between the paper and digital tests for either the Verbal or Math sections of the PSAT or SAT. The level of difficulty is equivalent in all respects. The only differences are in the media and technology used to take them.

    College Board is recommending that colleges superscore between and among paper and digital versions until the conversion to digital is complete. For example, if a student takes a paper SAT in December 2023 and receives a higher score in Verbal than in Math and then takes the digital SAT in May 2024 and gets a higher score in Math than in Verbal, College Board encourages colleges to combine the two high scores into one superscore.

2. Practice Digital Tests 

Four full-length adaptive digital practice tests are available through Bluebook, College Board’s test delivery platform. Students who have downloaded Bluebook will be able to take the practice tests using the same interface, format, and scoring methodology that they will be used for the actual digital SAT starting in 2024.

  • Practice Test Tip

    Students should guess on practice tests if they don’t know an answer because incorrect answers will not be penalized. They should refer to the scoring guide after taking the test because it has explanations of answers designed to guide the student in identifying areas for study.

    In traditional testing on the current SAT, the total number of correct answers corresponds directly to a score. In an adaptive test like the digital SAT, scoring is more complex because individual questions have different weights. The term used for differential weighting is Item Response Scoring. This is the method that will be used to score the digital tests.

  • Insights on the Math and Verbal Sections

    Jed Applerouth, an educational consultant, has researched the digital SAT by administering practice tests to his student-clients. He concluded that the structural changes adopted to make the test shorter, adaptive, and slower-paced will make it much more popular with students and educators.

    Regarding the Math section, Applerouth’s summary was, “At 44 total problems, down from 58, the math section feels more manageable. There are fewer word problems, which is great for non-native speakers. On the digital SAT only 30% of math items will be in the context of science or social studies or real-world applications. The remaining 70% of items will be pure math problems.

    Regarding the Verbal section, Applerouth summary was, “Reading is shorter, but tougher on the new SAT. Short passages are not necessarily easier passages. The reading level on the practice tests is as high, if not higher, than other SATs in recent years. Switching to a new topic, voice, and style every question requires a bit more mental agility. Counterbalancing this, the predictable grouping of questions by type (all vocabulary at once followed by all craft and structure questions), allows a student to get into a particular problem-solving mindset for a stretch of time.”

3. SAT vs. ACT

For several decades, the SAT and the ACT have essentially been different versions of the same thing. Both measure the cognitive abilities of students and their readiness for college. However, their similarity will end with the advent of the digital SAT.

The College Board is making technological advancements in an effort to change with the times. ACT’s strategy is to continue as a paper-based system. Since most colleges that accept tests will accept either one, the divergence in their testing technology will afford students the option to choose which approach suits them best.