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College Board Announces Streamlined, Digital SAT as More Universities Go Test-Optional During Pandemic

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The SAT will be given to students virtually beginning next year, according to the College Board, the nonprofit organization that owns and administers the test. The change, revealed Tuesday morning, is designed to make the SAT easier to take during a period when hundreds of colleges and universities have dropped the test as an admissions requirement.

The digital version of the test will be rolled out internationally in March 2023, while students in the United States will have to wait until March 2024. A pilot of the online test was conducted last fall, with both test takers and administrators largely voicing their approval.

The new testing format will be accompanied by a number of substantive changes. The test will now take roughly two hours to administer, down from approximately three hours for the pencil-and-paper version; students will also receive more time to answer each question. Reading passages will be shortened, with just one question attached to each passage, and calculators will be allowed for all math sections of the test (currently, the math portion includes some “no calculator” sections). 

But according to the College Board’s announcement, some elements of the new SAT will resemble the old: Scores will still be measured on a 1,600-point scale, and the test will be accessed by students at schools or testing centers, rather than at home. 

Most of all, the College Board emphasized, the virtual test would assess the same material, at the same level of rigor, as the SAT does today. The organization’s vice president of college readiness assessments, Priscilla Rodriguez, said in an interview that the benefits of the change lay in “streamlining and simplifying everything around the assessment of reading, writing, and math.”

The digital SAT is “measuring the same skills and knowledge that today’s SAT does, it’s just doing it in a slightly different way,” Rodriguez said. “Students still need to know the core reading, writing and math skills that research shows, again and again, are necessary for career and college readiness.”

The process of simplification could yield some logistical benefits to everyone involved in taking or giving the SAT, according to the College Board. Online test administration will reduce the burden of sorting and shipping test materials and allow students to receive their scores in a matter of days rather than weeks. Schools will also have greater latitude in deciding where and when to administer the exam, which could allow more students to take it.

The new version of the exam received high marks from both students and test proctors in a survey conducted by the College Board, with 100 percent of proctors reporting that their experience administering the digital SAT was either the same or better than its paper-and-pencil equivalent. Eighty percent of student respondents said that the changes made the process of taking the test “less stressful.”

Christal Wang, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, was part of a randomly selected group of about 500 students in eight countries who took part in the virtual pilot in November. While she did not receive her score from the pilot, Wang said that she found the online test easier than the paper-and-pencil version — which she took in August — because of the changes to the reading portions.

“They removed the long passages that were traditionally in those sections and replaced them with short paragraphs for each question,” she wrote in an email. “I personally liked the digital format more primarily for this reason, because it took less time for each question and it helped me maintain focus.”

But the unveiling of the new format may also raise the question of whether the digital exam is not only easier to take, but also also easier to pass — especially given the pace at which colleges have adopted test-optional admissions requirements during the pandemic.

According to a December report from the Urban Institute, the number of four-year universities featuring test-optional policies has increased from 288 to 927 since the emergence of COVID-19. Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell Universities — among the most prestigious in the world — have all suspended testing requirements through at least 2024, and several legislatures have passed laws to make their entire state university systems test optional over the past year.  

At the same time, just 1.5 million members of the high school class of 2021 sat for the SAT — down 700,000 from the total for the class of 2020.

Rodriguez said that she hoped the alterations to the exam would make it “more approachable” to students, but added that the move online was also the realization of a plan that COVID had accelerated, not originated.

“We’ve been listening for years to students and educators on what it’s like to take or give our test. There are a lot of limitations to being a highly secure, paper-and-pencil test that circles the globe, and we’re able to break a lot of those limitations by going digital.”

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