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How has the Digital SAT Changed?

The digital SAT is fast approaching! There are so many changes to the SAT’s format that it can be hard to parse all at once-but we’re here for you. We’ll start by breaking down the new SAT’s structure and timeline. From there, we’ll take a deep dive into the changes in the content. Finally, we’ll wrap some things up with our independent research into some contentious changes to the way the digital SAT is scored.


What changed?

Almost everything. The digital SAT is, of course, digital; students will have to bring their laptops to a testing facility to take the test. Said test will be administered through Bluebook; make sure to have it downloaded ahead of time!

The most exciting opportunity afforded by this is the modular difficulty now featured in the SAT. The first half of both the Math and Reading sections will be the same for every student-but, after the first section, students will be placed into an easier or harder second module depending on their skill level. Ideally, this will mean that students will face questions at an appropriate difficulty level for their abilities through the whole test. However, there are some complications when it comes to scoring the tests, which we’ll elaborate more on at the tail end of this article!

Some well-researched readers might have noticed that I only talked about the Math and Reading sections; we glossed over the Writing section. Well, in the digital SAT, the Reading and Writing section has undergone extensive changes. The Reading and Writing sections have been combined into a single section, and now, instead of featuring long passages, each question has a single paragraph devoted to it. While it’s not as necessary with these shorter passages, Bluebook will also features some minor annotation capabilities, such as the ability to highlight lines.

The Math section is much more similar to the old test’s content. The largest change students will face on that front is that they are allowed to use their calculators on the entire math section-or even the common graphing utility DESMOS, which is baked into Bluebook’s functionality.

Let’s take a look at the test’s timing!

  • The Reading section is made of two modules; a diagnostic module and one of the Easy or Hard modules.

  • Each module is 27 questions long, and students are given a total of 32 minutes per module.

  • Between the Math and Reading sections is a 10-minute break.

  • The Math section is made of two modules; a diagnostic module and one of the Easy or Hard modules.

  • Each module is 22 questions long, and students are given 35 minutes per module.

  • In total, counting the break, the test lasts for 2 hours and 24 minutes.

In general, the test has become much shorter: there are 14 fewer Math questions, 42 fewer Reading and Writing questions, and the test is an hour shorter. Students will have about 20 more seconds per Math problem, but will actually lose about 4 seconds per question on the Reading section (comparing both to the most appropriate sections on the old SAT). However, the shorter passages will easily make up for this loss; students won’t have to pour over lengthy passages any more!

When is the digital SAT starting?

In March of 2024! Current freshmen will be guaranteed to take the digital SAT, while most juniors are likely to avoid it. Sophomores have a difficult decision to make; if they feel that the current SAT suits their strengths better, they may want to put in the time and effort to take the SAT over the summer.

However, even if sophomores prefer the physical SAT, the PSAT they take in their junior year will be based on the digital SAT-be prepared!


What content is changing?

As we said before, before, most of the changes we’ve seen have been in the Reading and Writing sections.

  • Poetry is rearing its head again. It doesn’t come up frequently-at most, one time in every ten questions-but students will have to be prepared. So far, it seems to most frequently be combined with Main Idea questions.

  • Citing Textual Evidence, once the most common question type on the entire SAT, is no more-but it’s been replaced by two new question types that fill a similar role.

  • About a third of the Reading section deals with grammar questions that serve a similar role to the Writing section on the old SAT. The rest of the questions are very similar to those that show up on the old SAT’s Reading section.

In the Math section, things are largely the same as ever.

  • The Free Response Questions are now spread throughout the test, rather than centralized at the end of each section. In addition, unlike the old SAT, you can now submit negative answers and answers that are longer than four digits.

  • The test seems to have a slightly larger emphasis on function transformations than it did previously.

  • Similarly, the test goes slightly harder on trigonometry; we’ve seen radians show up, which the old SAT seldom touched on.


How does the scoring work?

Previously, the SAT worked on percentiles-if you got a 1050, you were in the 50th percentile of all students who took that test, while if you got a 1350, you were in the 90th. However, due to the adaptive module system, the test can no longer work this way. If not all the students are answering the same questions, you can’t rely on the number of correct answers to cleanly rank students anymore!

In the first set of nonadaptive practice tests that Collegeboard released to the public, they included grading scales that give us a bit of insight into how it works; it appears that if a student scores into the Easy module, then both the diagnostic module and the Easy module are graded along the Easy rubric, while if a student tests into Hard, then both are graded along the Hard rubric.

On these nonadaptive tests, the rubrics were set up to have very similar grading scales-the Hard rubric was only a few points ahead of the Easy one. If this were implemented into the SAT, it would create a massive problem for students around the 50th percentile; there would be the possibility that doing worse on the diagnostic module could give them a better score, as they could test into the Easy module and be more successful there. However, this is not the case on the adaptive tests that are scored via Bluebook.

The grading scale has not been released for the adaptive tests, but our private research has revealed that the grading scales are wildly different from those released in the nonadaptive practice tests.

Giving a concrete example taken from Practice Test 1, if a student gets 18 Reading questions and 13 Math questions correct from Module 1 (barely testing into the Easy section for both), they wind up with a final score of 530. However, if they get just one more question in each section correct, they test into Hard, and wind up with a final score of 880; a 350 point jump for just two more questions answered. The discrepancy is especially atrocious in Reading, where the subscore changes from 200 (the minimum possible score) to 450—a 250 point jump from just one question. This is the largest score gap on the test, but in general, you can expect that each section where you test into the Hard module is worth an additional 100 points.

These changes compound further if you look at the subsequent section; as the curve is easier in the Hard section, you can expect to gain between 40 to 100 percent more points per question you answer correctly in the latter half of the test.

Scoring Summary

Where does all of this leave us? Well, if you’re aiming for a score of 1300 or higher, you won’t have much to be concerned about; students who test into both Easy modules can attain a maximum score in the low 1100s. However, students who are near to the 50th percentile in Math or Reading are likely to have much more volatile scores than before. They may benefit from taking the test more times than usual and taking the best of the resultant scores!

It seems substantially better to test into the Hard section and do poorly than to test into the Easy section and do well, so students should always aim to do well in the diagnostic modules. Based off of our research, students will want to achieve an accuracy rate of at least 70 percent in Reading and 65 percent in Math to have a good shot of making it into the Hard module.

Collegeboard seems to have good intentions behind their change to the SAT’s scoring system, but their current implementation seems somewhat lacking; it introduces a plethora of edge cases for us to be concerned about. Let’s hope that as they continue revising the test, we start seeing more equitable scoring systems!

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