By: Nevada Ryan
Following a pilot round with international students in 2023, in addition to extensive industry chatter, the digital SAT has officially arrived in the United States, marking the permanent transition from the traditional paper version. The discontinuation of the paper SAT means that this digital version is now the sole option for test-takers. Notable changes in timing and format distinguish this new exam from the 2015-2023 paper version, while other elements, including math content, remain nearly identical. This post aims to provide a concise overview for individuals contemplating a choice between the digital SAT and its primary competitor, the ACT.
The latest version of the test takes place on College Board’s proprietary digital testing application, Bluebook™. It is no longer a paper and pencil test, as it has been in the past, and students must take the test at a College Board-approved testing center—either on a personal laptop, one provided by their school, or a loaner from College Board. Additionally, the testing calendar will remain the same, with spring dates in March, May, and June, and fall dates in August, October, November, and December.
Format and structure
A crucial change to this new SAT is its timing and format. The previous version had a Reading section, a Writing & Language section, a non-calculator math section, and a calculator math section. The new test combines the Reading and Writing & Language sections into one (called “Reading and Writing”), and combines both math sections into one (called “Math”). Note the differences in timing and question number below:
Notice that both sections in the above table are broken up into “modules.” This has to do with the test’s new adaptive feature. Adaptive tests are ones that change or “adapt” to a test taker’s performance in real time (notable adaptive tests include the GMAT and the GRE). For the new SAT, the adaptive feature means that the test tailors the content of Module 2 of each section to how the student performs on Module 1. Everyone receives the same (or similarly challenging) Module 1, which contains a mix of easy, medium, and hard questions; Module 2 comes in either an easier or a harder version, targeted to the student’s performance in Module 1.
It is also important to note that the SAT is a “section-adaptive” test, not a “question-adaptive” test. The latter indicates a test in which each subsequent question changes based on how a student performs on the previous question. With the SAT, by contrast, a student's performance on the entirety of the first module is taken into consideration, as opposed to their performance on any one question. To put it differently, which specific questions a student misses within Module 1 isn’t relevant; rather, the student’s overall performance on Module 1 is what counts.
Thankfully, the scoring scale has not changed. As with the 2015-2023 version, raw scores (the number of correct answers) for each section are converted into a scaled score. There is a Reading and Writing score (scale from 200 to 800) and a Math score (scale from 200 to 800); their arithmetic sum constitutes the Total score (scale from 400 to 1600). Additional facts about scoring are below:
- There is no penalty for wrong answers.
- Subscores and cross-test scores are no longer available.
- Concordance/conversion tables for the digital SAT and ACT are the same as for the 2015-2023 paper SAT. According to College Board, “counselors, educators, and higher education professionals can still use the existing paper SAT vs. ACT concordance tables with the digital SAT.” This means, among other things, that superscoring (for schools that accept it) between the old/paper SAT and the digital is allowed.
- Scores are released several days after the testing day.
Reading and Writing section
As mentioned above, the Reading and Writing & Language sections of the test are now combined. But there are other notable changes that will affect how a student approaches this section:
- Passage length - Long passages are gone. Each passage is now a single short paragraph (or, for one question type, two very short paragraphs), typically 25 to 150 words (as opposed to the previous test’s Reading passages, which were 700 to 800 words).
- Discrete questions - Previously, in both the Reading section and the Writing & Language section, multiple questions corresponded with a single large passage. This is no longer the case. Now, questions are “discrete,” which means a single question correlates with a single passage/paragraph.
- Vocabulary - There is now an increased emphasis on vocabulary. This means the test is not only similar to pre-2015 versions of the SAT; it is also similar to examinations such as the ISEE and SSAT, which many students gearing up for college now may have taken back in middle school.
- New question categories - There are many questions in a new “Command of Evidence” category that require students to interpret (sometimes complex) graphs, charts, and tables. There is also a new “Rhetorical Synthesis” category that requires a test-taker to summarize bullet points to achieve a particular rhetorical goal. Lastly, while older political science and philosophy texts (e.g. Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln) are no longer tested, poetry (e.g. Shakespeare, Whitman) is now fair game.
The content of the Math section has not changed. It tests almost the exact same content as the previous SAT, though there is slightly more geometry and trigonometry than on the previous test. The main differences are cataloged below:
- Question format mixing - The free-response questions are now mixed in with the four-part multiple choice questions. This means there is no longer an explicitly defined “grid-in” section.
- Free-response changes - Negative signs are now allowed on free-response questions. Additionally, students now have the option to include up to five spaces for a free-response question (or six for negative numbers).
- Desmos - The single most important difference is the ability to use a calculator during the entire test—there are no longer separate non-calculator and calculator sections. Students can use their own calculator, but we highly recommend taking advantage of the integrated Desmos graphing calculator (you can practice with the College Board version, which is the exact version available on Bluebook, here). Not only is it an intuitive tool that is easy to use, the graphing feature is also far easier to utilize than a standard handheld version; additionally, students can easily graph functions that do not start with “y=” (such as a circle).
Advantages and disadvantages
Central advantages and disadvantages of the new SAT are below.
- Much shorter than the old SAT (and the ACT).
- Fewer questions than the old SAT (and the ACT).
- Discrete questions.
- Desmos access.
- Lack of materials. Only four officially released tests exist on College Board’s Bluebook application. This means students preparing for this exam are restricted in the amount of material they have to practice with.
- No more Question and Answer (QAS) service. This means you can no longer ask College Board for a copy of the test you took with the specific questions you missed, which makes studying for the test trickier than studying for the ACT (which does allow for this through its Test Information Release (TIR) service).
- Reading on a screen. Despite being a regular feature of daily life, reading on a computer screen is still difficult—and eye-straining—for many people. Those considering taking this new exam will want to factor this into their decision.
There are good reasons to be excited about this new version of the SAT and to consider it over its competitor, the ACT. That said, the digital SAT is still brand new, and the only feedback we have—from international students who were treated as guinea pigs last year—was lukewarm, which means a case can be made for going with “the devil you know” (the ACT).
For those unsure which test better suits their abilities and needs, the best option is to take a diagnostic version of both, then review those results with a skilled tutor who can help interpret the results. Great Expectations College Prep has a team of seasoned test prep tutors who are equipped to do exactly that. To get started with this process, contact our office by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 888-917-PREP (7737).