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Assessment Opinion

What the Digital SAT Will Mean for Students and Educators

By Rick Hess — February 23, 2022 6 min read
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The SAT has long been a rite of passage for high school seniors looking to attend college. Well, as readers may know, the College Board last month announced that the test is being revised and will be offered only in a digital format by spring 2024. Curious about what this means for students, educators, and the college-admissions process, I reached out to Priscilla Rodriguez, VP of college-readiness assessments at the College Board, where she is charged with managing the SAT. Here’s what she had to say.

—Rick

Rick: After all the disruptions of the pandemic and with so many colleges going “test optional,” where does the SAT stand today?

Priscilla: When nearly every U.S. college went test optional during the pandemic, millions of students still took the SAT. In fact, participation has grown with the high school class of 2022 compared with the class of 2021. And in the class of 2021, 62 percent of the students who took the SAT participated in our SAT School Day program in which we partner with states, districts, and schools to offer the SAT at no cost to students at their school during the school day. That’s the highest percentage of any class so far.

Rick: The College Board recently announced that the SAT will be fully digital by 2024. What will that mean in practice?

Priscilla: The SAT will be delivered digitally internationally beginning in spring 2023 and in the U.S. in spring 2024. With the changes we’ve announced, the digital SAT will be easier to take, easier to give, and more relevant. We’re not simply putting the current SAT on a digital platform—we’re taking full advantage of what delivering an assessment digitally makes possible.

Rick: What are a couple of the big changes?

Priscilla: The digital SAT will be shorter—about two hours instead of three, with more time per question. The digital test will feature shorter reading passages with one question tied to each, and passages will reflect a wider range of topics that represent the works students read in college. Calculators will be allowed on the entire math section. Students and educators will get scores back in days, instead of weeks. And, to reflect the range of paths that students take after high school, digital SAT score reports will also connect students to information and resources about local two-year colleges, workforce-training programs, and career options.

Rick: You note that the test will take less time, feature shorter passages, and allow calculators. Some have asked whether this suggests the test is becoming less rigorous. What’s your take on such concerns?

Priscilla: The SAT will continue to measure the knowledge and skills that students are learning in high school and that research shows matter most for college and career readiness. It will cover the same content domains and still require critical-thinking skills to answer questions successfully. And it will continue to be predictive of college success. What we’re doing with these changes is providing students with a way to show what they have learned.

Rick: How will the changes you’re talking about affect the security of the test?

Priscilla: The changes will make the SAT more secure. With the current paper and pencil SAT, if one test form is compromised, it can mean canceling administrations or canceling scores for a whole group of students. Going digital allows every student to receive a unique test form, so it will be practically impossible to share answers.

Rick: And what are a couple key things that will be staying the same?

Priscilla: The SAT will still be scored on a 1600 scale. The assessment will continue to be administered in a school or in a test center with a proctor present—not at home. Students will still have access to free practice resources on Khan Academy. And students taking the SAT will continue to connect to scholarships and the College Board National Recognition Programs.

Rick: How long have these changes been in the works?

Priscilla: While we had been moving toward offering a digital SAT for a number of years, the pandemic has accelerated our transition. Students are now doing more of their learning and testing digitally, and the SAT shouldn’t be the exception. In November, we piloted the digital SAT in the U.S. and internationally, and the feedback validated our decision to make these changes—80 percent of students responded that they found it to be less stressful. The digital SAT is very much aimed at taking pressure off students and giving them the opportunity to demonstrate what they know.

Rick: There’s been a highly publicized shift of some colleges to “test optional” admissions. How has that affected the SAT?

Priscilla: When viewed within the context of where a student lives and learns, test scores can confirm a student’s grades or demonstrate their strengths beyond what their high school grades may show. In the class of 2020, nearly 1.7 million U.S. students had SAT scores that confirmed or exceeded their high school GPA. That means that their SAT scores were a point of strength on their college applications. Among those students, more than 300,000 were from small towns and rural communities; 600,000 were first-generation college goers; and 700,000 were Black or Latino. And, when surveyed, 83 percent of students said they want the option to submit test scores to colleges. Students want to take the SAT, find out how they did, and then decide if they want to submit their scores to colleges.

Rick: Some critics charge that the SAT favors the affluent, while others argue it was created explicitly to provide a less subjective measure of student readiness. Can you say a few a words about your own feelings on this score?

Priscilla: The SAT allows every student—regardless of where they go to high school—to be seen and to access opportunities that will shape their lives and careers. I am one of those students. I’m a first-generation American, the child of immigrants who came to the U.S. with limited financial resources, and I know how the SAT opened doors to colleges, scholarships, and educational opportunities that I otherwise never would have known about or had access to. We want to keep those same doors of opportunity open for all students. In designing the digital SAT, we’ve focused on access and equity. All students can receive free practice on Khan Academy; if students don’t have a device to use, the College Board will provide one for use on test day; and more students will benefit from the opportunities provided through the SAT School Day program.

Rick: What’s the most important thing for K-12 educators to know about the change?

Priscilla: In the November pilot, 100 percent of the 98 participating educators reported having a positive experience. Educators will no longer have to deal with packing, sorting, or shipping test materials. And with changes that make the SAT shorter and easier to administer, states, districts, and schools will have more options for when, where, and how often they administer the SAT—rather than adhering to a fixed schedule. These improvements are especially important because students from all backgrounds increasingly are taking the SAT during the school day, and independent research shows the benefits of universal school day testing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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