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SAT Goes Digital: 4 Reasons Why You Should Take the SAT Before the Change

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By now, almost everyone has heard the news: beginning in March of 2023, the SAT is going “digital.” And with the shift to computer-based testing will come other big changes as well—changes to section types, changes to question types, changes to time limits, changes to scoring, and probably changes to other elements as well.

While this news is important for anyone who plans to apply to American colleges and universities from 2023 onward, it is especially important for members of the class of 2024, who will be uniquely impacted by the change. The launch of the digital SAT will cut a chasm through these students’ crucial eleventh-grade year, significantly disrupting normal SAT preparation and testing routines. On one side will be the August, October, and December 2022 tests, still in the familiar paper-based format. On the other side will be the March, May, June, and other 2023 tests, all in the new and unfamiliar digital format.

In the face of this exceptional situation, it is essential that students in the class of 2024 plan early and plan wisely.

Specifically, we recommend that all class of 2024 students aim to finish with the SAT by December 2022, before the launch of the digital test. Our concern is not that the digital test will be more difficult; rather, our concern is that it will be much more difficult to prepare for, especially during the coming summer. Indeed, we fear that students who wait for the digital test may find themselves at a significant disadvantage relative to students who do not.

Below are the four main reasons for this recommendation.


1. We know much more about the current paper SAT than we know about the upcoming digital SAT.

The current version of the SAT is now six years old, having launched in March of 2016. As a result, we have six years’ worth of knowledge and insight about the test: we know exactly what topics are tested, and we know exactly how they are tested. In short, we know precisely what to expect; there are few surprises.

In contrast, the digital version is still a year away, and we currently know very little about it. College Board has pledged to provide additional information and resources, but the rollout schedule (see below) for that information will be slow, and the resources are likely to be quite limited (see the next section).

College Board’s Timetable for Release of Information about the Digital SAT

Summer
2022
·   “Test specifications,” including basic information about “sections,” “timing,” “number of questions,” and more.
·   The first “sample questions.”
Autumn
2022
·   The first “digital practice material.”
·   The first “full-length practice tests.”

Note that this timetable will make it impossible for students to prepare for the digital SAT during the summer of 2022.


2. We have much more practice material available for the current paper SAT than we do for the upcoming digital SAT. In fact, we may never have as much practice material for the digital SAT as we now have for the paper SAT.

Students preparing for the current version of the test have an almost inexhaustible supply of quality practice materials—numerous real SATs and PSATs (“past papers”) from each of the last several years, totaling probably 70 or more tests in all.

In contrast, students intending to take the digital test will have to wait until summer even for “test specifications”—basic information about “sections,” “timing,” “number of questions,” etc. They will have to wait even longer for the first practice materials and the first practice tests. (See above.)

And those practice tests and materials are likely to be quite limited in scope. The last time the SAT underwent a major format change (March of 2016, when the current SAT replaced the old 2400-scale test), College Board provided only four practice tests in total. It seems likely that College Board will release a similarly small number of practice tests in advance of the digital launch.

Note as well that no tests will be available in time for summer of 2022. Again, class of 2024 students who wish to prepare for the digital test will not be able to use the coming summer to their advantage.


3. Evidence from College Board itself proves that students do better on the SAT as more information and more preparation materials become available—a compelling reason to favor an old and familiar test over a new and unfamiliar one.

As mentioned above, the SAT’s last major format change took place in 2016, and the first students to take the then-new test had only four practice tests—plus some additional practice material on Khan Academy—to work with. As a result, they struggled to find their footing.

As time passed, however, everyone learned more about the “new” test, and more and better practice materials became available. Consequently, students began to perform better.

Nowhere is this phenomenon clearer than in the percentile tables that College Board itself publishes every year.

Composite Score Percentiles by Year, 2017-2020

Composite Score2017 Percentile2018 Percentile2019 Percentile2020 Percentile
160099+99+99+99+
159099+99+99+99+
158099+99+99+99+
157099+99+99+99+
156099+99+99+99+
155099+99+99+99
154099+999999
153099+999999
152099999999
151099999998
150099999898
149099989898
148099989897

Note how the cutoff for the 99th percentile rises from 2017 to 2020—and how 1480 drops from 99th to 97th percentile—as the years pass and students gain additional practice material, become more familiar with the test, and actually begin performing measurably better.

Class of 2024 students who chose to wait for the digital test risk finding themselves in the position of the 2017 students in the table above—underperforming not for lack of talent or drive but for simple lack of information and practice.


4. Hopes that the new SAT will be “easier” betray a basic misunderstanding of how standardized tests work.

College Board has heralded the digital SAT as “less stressful” and “easier to take.” It has promised any number of “student-friendly” changes, including a shorter overall test, shorter reading passages, additional time per question, and an end to no-calculator math.

And students who have participated in “pilot testing” have proclaimed (on Reddit and elsewhere) that the tests that they took were “much easier” and that younger students are “lucky,” since the “easier” digital version will enable them to achieve “higher scores.”

This all certainly sounds appealing. Unfortunately, there are two major problems with the “easier test” narrative.

First, the “pilot tests” are not real tests: student participants receive compensation for their time, but they do not receive actual scores. Thus, there is no reason to suppose that the content of the pilot tests foreshadows the content of the real digital SAT. In fact, some have suggested that College Board is deliberately employing simple “placeholder” questions on the pilot tests while it evaluates technology, procedures, etc.

Second, an “easier” test would be easier for everyone and would thus provide no net benefit to any individual test taker. Put differently, an easier test would give everyone the same boost and thus leave no particular test taker any better off, relative to other test-takers, than he or she had been before the boost.In short, the idea that the shift to a digital SAT will usher in some golden age of easier standardized testing, in which everyone scores a 1600 and gains safe passage to Harvard and Stanford, is pure fantasy. High scores will remain rare. Indeed, as discussed in the previous section, high scores might actually become rarer, at least in the short term.

In short, the idea that the shift to a digital SAT will usher in some golden age of easier standardized testing, in which everyone scores a 1600 and gains safe passage to Harvard and Stanford, is pure fantasy. High scores will remain rare. Indeed, as discussed in the previous section, high scores might actually become rarer, at least in the short term.

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