The Digital SAT & PSAT: What Does It Mean for You?

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I’m sure by now you’re aware that the SAT and PSAT are changing. But, if you’re like most people, you’re assuming that College Board is just taking the paper test that we all know so well and putting it online. If that were the case, advanced learners on a college-readiness track could breathe easily knowing they are ready for the new digital SAT and PSAT. Unfortunately, the reality is not quite that simple. While parts of the test will be comfortably familiar, there have been quite a few changes. So, to make sure students are prepared academically and psychologically for this new format, it’s important that everyone involved in the process – from students to teachers to curriculum writers to counselors to administrators – understand the changes in the exams and how to prepare for those changes efficiently (“The digital SAT suite of assessments,” 2023). The goal, as ever, is to maximize student performance while minimizing the effort required and the stress associated with the exam. With solid preparation, the digital SAT and PSAT exams will be a forum for students to demonstrate their college readiness. 

First, let’s clear up the difference between the PSAT and the SAT. In the paper format, the PSAT was a slightly shorter version of the SAT, with a slightly less broad and less difficult range of questions. In the new digital format, the SAT and the PSAT have the same format with only one math concept – the unit circle – designated as SAT only. You may be asking yourself, “What about the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT/NMSQT? What are all those and how are they different?” Great question! There are three different tests in the College Board SAT Suite: the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT, and the SAT. The PSAT 8/9 is designed for 8th and 9th graders. The PSAT is taken by 10th graders in the spring of their 10th grade year (and called the PSAT 10). The PSAT is taken by Juniors in the fall of their 11th grade year (and called the PSAT). The NMSQT is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. To qualify as a National Merit Scholar, students have to take the PSAT as an 11th grader. Only the PSAT taken in the fall of a student’s junior year will be automatically considered in the NMSQT competition. In other words, a perfect score on the PSAT 10 taken in the spring of a student’s sophomore year is not entered into the NMSQT competition.

In the paper version of those tests, SAT was the longest and hardest while the PSAT 8/9 was the shortest and easiest in terms of the range of content. Now, all three tests – the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT, and the SAT – will have the exact same structure, the same time limit, and the same number of questions. Only the mix of questions and the range of content will differ. The differences are most evident on the math side of the exams. All three tests have the same four math content areas (Algebra, Advanced Math, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Geometry), but they have a different percentage of questions assigned to each content area. For example, Advanced Math content makes up about 35% of the SAT questions, 32.5% of the PSAT questions, and only 20% of the PSAT 8/9 questions. Additionally, the PSAT 8/9 does not test Trigonometry, while the PSAT and SAT test Geometry and Trigonometry together.

So what will that new format look like? College Board describes the test as multi-stage adaptive testing. The test is a total of 2 hours and 14 minutes broken into two verbal modules, followed by a 10-minute break, followed by two math modules. Each verbal module is 32 minutes long and consists of 27 questions. Each math module is 35 minutes long and consists of 22 questions. This structure will be true for all three exams – the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT, and the SAT.

The new digital PSAT 8/9, PSAT, and SAT tests are adaptive at the section-level, or module-level, to use College Board’s terminology. How does that work? Each student will start with a tailored selection of 27 verbal questions that meet the criteria for difficulty and question type. Then, based on the student’s overall performance on Verbal Module 1, they will get a Verbal Module 2 that is overall either harder or easier. The student’s performance on those two verbal modules will then determine the student’s verbal score. Likewise, for math, there are two modules, with the student’s performance on Math Module 1 determining whether the student sees a Math Module 2 that is easier or more difficult. In both verbal and math, the scores for students who advance to the harder module tend to be higher than the scores for students who end up with the easier module. 

From a student, a proctor, and administrator perspective, the digital tests are faster, simpler, and more streamlined. They are easier to take as a student and easier to administer as a proctor. All of the typical accommodations are still available from the College Board, but they must be requested well in advance of the test administration. 

When will these changes go into effect? The digital PSAT starts in October 2023 and the first administration of the digital SAT is scheduled for Spring 2024, so these changes affect students now. Only seniors graduating in 2024 but taking the SAT in Fall 2023 will be unaffected by these changes.

What Do These Changes Mean For You?

That depends on who you are. Read on!
Administrators

The changes to the tests are significant. Students, teachers, and counselors need to be brought up to speed on what’s new and how these changes will impact them. Counselors and teachers should receive professional development that provides an overview of the changes. In addition, ELAR and Math teachers should receive additional professional development that focuses on how their specific content is tested on the new exams and how they can incorporate that information into their classroom instruction to better prepare students organically and systematically. 

Teachers

Educators need to understand the global changes to the exam and the specific changes in their content area. Preparing students to successfully address these changes will likely require teachers to introduce and model new strategies that emphasize critical thinking in math and verbal content areas. On the verbal side, in particular, students will benefit from working with short, dense passages of between 25 and 150 words. If you are a teacher, professional development can help you understand how your content area is tested on the new exams, learn effective strategies for tackling that content, and enable you to incorporate test-like questions into your classroom teaching.
Parents and Students

Students and their families need to understand this new digital exam globally and specifically. Students will need to prepare specifically for this new digital format because the question formats and the available tools are different. Also, students testing during the 2023-2024 school year need to think about the best time to take the SAT. Normally, I recommend that students prepare for the October PSAT and then take the SAT in November or December to maximize their results by capitalizing on their preparation. That won’t work this year. While the digital PSAT starts in October, students can’t take the digital SAT until the spring of 2024. So, I recommend waiting to take the digital SAT even though that means students will need to refresh their preparation before taking that exam. 
Curriculum Writers

District curriculum writers also need to understand the global changes to the exam and the specific changes in each content area. This will provide opportunities to embed language and question types that mimic the questions on the new digital exam so that students will become accustomed to seeing the new question types and using specific strategies that are most effective. To best prepare, professional development should focus on understanding how content areas are tested on the new exams, using effective strategies for tackling that content, and incorporating test-like questions into the district’s curricula.
Testing Coordinators

The SAT family of tests going digital will obviously impact the job of testing coordinators. The good news is that the SAT is eliminating the requirement for everyone to test at the same time on the same day. There will be a testing window, and College Board will allow schools to administer the exams on as many days of the testing window as they need. So, schools could have rolling test dates, with different campuses or groups of students taking the exams on different days throughout the window. For Fall 2023, for example, the PSAT 8/9 and the PSAT testing windows are October 2-31. That gives schools and testing coordinators some breathing room to juggle resources and make sure things run smoothly. College Board does note that “if your state requires you to administer SAT School Day, PSAT 10 or PSAT 8/9, your state may determine your testing schedule” (“In-school testing,” 2023, para. 5). Additionally, the testing will be done inside the College Board’s Bluebook app. It is specifically designed so that (a) the test will continue even if the internet disconnects during testing, (b) the student’s progress will be saved if the student’s device dies, and (c) students will not be able to access any other programs while in Bluebook’s testing mode.

Key Content Changes 

So what are the content changes on the new digital exams? Keep reading to find out (“Assessment framework for the digital SAT suite,” 2022; “The digital SAT suite of assessments specifications overview,” 2022).

Verbal on the Digital Exam 

In terms of the content tested, the biggest changes – and I do mean big – are on the verbal side. Verbal has always consisted of Reading and Writing (i.e., grammar). On the paper tests, those two subjects were tested in separate sections. Now, in the digital test, each of the two verbal modules contains both Reading and Writing questions. The split is 54% Reading and 46% Writing. The Reading questions address rhetoric (i.e., Craft and Structure) and content (i.e., Information and Ideas). The Writing questions address Grammar (i.e., Standard English Conventions) and Writer’s Craft (i.e., Expression of Ideas).
       The biggest structural change in the verbal is that neither Reading nor Writing will contain longer passages with multiple questions. Instead, every one of the 54 verbal questions will have its own mini-passage of 25 to 150 words: one passage, one question. In the digital format, students will be able to highlight portions of the text and add notes or annotations. For most students, spending time adding notes or annotations on such short texts will be a waste of time and energy; it is better for students to use active reading and paraphrasing without wasting time annotating such short texts.

Within the Reading section, students will see familiar questions such as purpose, main idea, and detail questions. In addition, inferences are tested in a new format, as a conclusion to the text. For those who were disappointed when the College Board eliminated the vocabulary sentence completion questions in 2016, there is good news. The vocabulary questions are back. In fact, each of the two verbal sections will begin with vocabulary sentence completion questions, now called Words in Context. 

The biggest changes to the Reading questions are the new question types: overall text structure, the function of the underlined sentence, textual evidence, and quantitative evidence. Most of these question types will be completely unfamiliar to students and teachers. In addition, the College Board has introduced poetryinto the mix of passage types students will encounter on the exam. In fact, poetry is tested in each of the four digital SAT practice exams released by the College Board (“Digital SAT practice and preparation,” 2023). For many, the addition of poetry may come as an unwelcome shock. 

On the grammar side, the questions test almost all the same range and type of question as before. What’s new is in the area of Writer’s Craft, where there are now two new question types: transitions(e.g., likewise, however, nevertheless, conversely) and a brand-new question type called Rhetorical Synthesis. Rhetorical Synthesis questions ask students to select the choice that best accomplishes a particular authorial goal, such as to emphasize a difference between two points of view. To be prepared, students will need (a) an effective method of analyzing the text and (b) lots of practice.

Math on the Digital Exam

Unlike the ACT exam, the SAT and PSAT exams have always had a no calculator math section. That is no longer true. The biggest change on the math side of the digital exams is that students can use a calculator on the entire math test – both sections, all questions. And, not just any calculator. The College Board has incorporated a Desmos calculator for use during the testing. And if that brings to mind the Desmos calculator students can use on the state tests, hold that thought. While that in itself would be handy, the Desmos calculator on the digital exams does not have many of the limitations that the version on the state tests has. Students can type what they see directly from the test question (i.e., no more rearranging into y = format). That is a huge and very welcome change that simplifies math calculations enormously. 

From a content perspective, the harder questions now (a) assume students will be using the Desmos calculator and (b) require students to have a grasp of mathematical thinking. The harder questions have moved beyond mathematical mechanics, which makes sense given that Desmos does all the mechanics for you with no hassle and no work. Instead, those questions have shifted to verifying that a student knows what the calculator results are actually saying (e.g., When I type this into Desmos, what will I get? What will that information tell me? What will I need to do with that information?). Ready to see some concrete examples? You can access sample questions on the College Board site (“Digital SAT: Sample questions and answer explanations,” 2023).

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the new digital SAT and PSAT will likely feel easier to students. The question is whether it will actually be easier. Yes, there’s a calculator available for all the math questions. But that won’t help students if they don’t know what the calculator is actually telling them or if they can’t interpret and use that data. Yes, all the passages on the verbal section are shorter and don’t require sustained attention. But students also need college ready vocabulary and the ability to assess the overall structure of a poem and analyze data from a chart to correctly answer a question. This new test offers a new challenge and a new opportunity for students. Preparation will help students synthesize what they know from middle school and high school and apply it to the test-level questions. Students who master these skills should find have a solid foundation for performing well in university classes. And that is, of course, the goal. 

References

“Assessment framework for the digital SAT suite.” (2022). College Board. https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/assessment-framework-for-digital-sat-suite.pdf

“Digital SAT practice and preparation.” (2023). College Board. https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/digital/digital-practice-preparation

“Digital SAT: Sample questions and answer explanations.” (2023). https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/digital-sat-sample-questions.pdf

“In-school testing.” (2023). College Board. https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/digital/educators/in-school-testing

 “The digital SAT suite of assessments.” (2023). https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/digital/educators

“The digital SAT suite of assessments specifications overview.” (2022). College Board. https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/digital-sat-test-spec-overview.pdf

Sheila Griffith, Ph.D., is co-author of the Knowsys College Readiness Program, the Knowsys Vocabulary Builder Program, and the Knowsys Basic Genius Math Program. Dr. Griffith is the co-owner and co-founder of Knowsys Educational Services and a recognized expert in exam preparation and vocabulary acquisition. With her research and curriculum focused on improving college readiness, Knowsys has partnered with universities, school districts, and educators across the U.S.

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