College Board Announces Changes to the SAT

In a major development in the world of standardized testing, College Board released a news brief yesterday announcing some significant upcoming changes to the SAT.

Before any already-overwhelmed high school juniors start to panic, these changes wouldn’t take effect until March 2023 for international testers and spring of 2024 for domestic testers, so American students currently prepping for the SAT are unlikely to have to worry about dealing with them. If you’re in 9th grade or below right now, however, here’s what you may have to look forward to:

  • A shorter test: This revamped SAT would be two hours long rather than the current three, and would consist of only two sections—Reading + Writing and Math.
  • A digital test: I hope you like screens, because the new test would be administered only on laptops and tablets.
  • An adaptive test: Using a digital medium would allow College Board (CB for the sake of brevity) to implement an adaptive testing system. In such a system, each of the test sections would be divided into two modules, with the difficulty of the second based on a student’s performance in the first.

The change to a digital format likely wouldn’t be a huge shift for many students, especially given the extensive experience they now have attending school virtually (three cheers for COVID, or something). The pivot to a computer adaptive test, though, is a biggie.

For those who are confused by CB’s description (which is pretty sparse), the system they’re planning to implement sounds very similar to the one currently used on the GRE. If that is indeed the case, the first “module” of each section-type would contain questions constituting a range of difficulty levels, with the overall difficulty of the module averaging out to be roughly middle-of-the-road. Once you finish the first module, the test’s algorithm would analyze how many questions you answered correctly and how hard they were, then give you a customized second module based on that data. So if you were to crush the first Math module, for instance, you could expect to see some very spicy problems in the second.

There are a number of positives that would come with the switch to an adaptive test. The score return process would likely be much faster: GRE and GMAT (another grad test with an adaptive system) testers get their scores back immediately upon completing the test, and College Board’s announcement indicates that scores from the new SAT would come back in “days instead of weeks.” Additionally, adaptive tests are inherently more secure than non-adaptive tests: no two students see the same version of the test, which makes cheating more difficult. The challenge of ensuring security is likely one of the reasons that the ACT and SAT both had to scrap their plans for non-adaptive at-home testing in 2020; on the other hand, ETS and GMAC have been successfully offering at-home versions of the GRE and GMAT, respectively, since early in the COVID pandemic.

And that brings us to a major question: will this shift actually happen? It’s easy to be skeptical of the announcement after CB didn’t follow through on the aforementioned promised 2020 digital launch, and indeed, the astute reader will notice that I’ve been using “may” and “would” quite a bit throughout this post. There’s no doubt that significant obstacles need to be surmounted in order for this plan to work. One of the biggest is inequity in access to technology: it’s much easier for under-resourced schools to get their hands on pencils and paper test booklets than it is for them to obtain laptops and tablets to lend to students who may not have access to them.

With that being said, this announcement feels different from the 2020 version. There’s a concrete plan in place for the rollout, as opposed to the frantic “oh yikes, COVID, uhhhh… I don’t know, let them take it at home!” vibe of 2020. College Board has more experience with digital testing now, having worked out a system to administer AP tests virtually in 2020 and then refined it in 2021. CB’s announcement even addresses the obstacle of technology inequity by promising to make loaner devices available to students who don’t have access to their own, a system that they’ve already implemented for AP exams as well.

And make no mistake: on a larger scale, not only has the digital testing train already left the station, it has in fact been puffing merrily down the tracks for quite a while now. The GMAT and GRE have been digital for years and recently rolled out at-home options, as mentioned earlier. The SSAT and ISEE did the same in late 2020. Even the LSAT, a test so resistant to change that it never even carries cash, has switched to a digital format for at least the foreseeable future. And no less prestigious an entity than the ACT, College Board’s main competitor, has been a digital-only test for international students for several years now.

That last point provides an excellent segue into our final question: so what about the ACT? In some ways, they now have an advantage: over the next couple of years, many students will likely choose to prepare for the ACT rather than offer themselves as test subjects for this new SAT. The ACT has repeatedly proven itself to be the more consistent of the two tests, making only a few notable structural changes over the past 20 years—adding a paired Reading passage, adding an optional essay, and then changing the format of said essay. The SAT, on the other hand, has wholly reinvented itself twice in that time and just announced that the third time is indeed the charm. 

It’s possible that this ends up being a significant business opportunity for the ACT in the short term, as they leverage their constancy and play on students’ hesitancy regarding the unknown in order to pry testers away from the SAT. We saw this exact phenomenon play out prior to 2016, the date of the last major change to the SAT: many students were unwilling to brave the first iterations of the new test, and the ACT grew in popularity commensurately. A new version of the SAT means fewer relevant practice materials, at least initially, and possibly volatile scoring curves and evolving content as well. Some students will be understandably intimidated by this and opt for the devil they know instead.

From a medium- and long-term perspective, however, it’s very difficult to escape the conclusion that the future of standardized testing is digital. Even if the ACT stands pat over the next couple of years and tries to take advantage of any uncertainty students feel about these SAT changes, don’t think for a second that they won’t be watching College Board’s rollout very, very closely.

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