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Pencils down. Big changes coming to the S.A.T.

Bubble sheet test with pencil.
Getty Images

The College Board's entrance exam is going all digital

Students will soon be able to retire their number two pencils and open up their laptops as the S.A.T. is about to become all digital.

“Those students that are currently high-school freshmen, that’s the first class in the United States that will actually be taking a new digital form of the S.A.T.” said Rob Franek, the editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review. He has been writing and speaking about the changes coming to the traditional college entrance exam. “It’s completely on-line and completely done either in schools or at testing centers.”

There had been speculation that The College Board, the nonprofit organization that creates and manages the test would create an at-home version of the S.A.T., but those plans were put aside for several reasons, including concern about students not having uninterrupted internet access for the duration of the exams.

There will be other changes to the S.A.T., including the amount of time it will take to complete the exam.

“The current pencil and paper S.A.T. (takes three hours), the new exam will be two hours, and that is a significant difference" said Franek. "The questions themselves will inherently be the same, but they will be predictive in nature. So that means when a student takes the first section of the S.A.T., based on if they got answers correct or incorrect, that will inform the next questions that they will see. So now the weighting of the S.A.T. is going to be different. Still with the 1600 scale being the perfect score, but those points will be more valuable to students on those harder questions. That’s the real difference.”

Another change to the test-taking experience: calculators will now be permitted for the entire exam. Students will be allowed to being in their own or they can use one that will be imbedded in the digital platform. Also the reading passages in the exam will be much shorter.

The changes are an attempt by The College Board to keep the test relevant at a time when many colleges and universities are going test-optional. More than 1,800 schools in the U.S. are not requiring a test score to enroll this fall, and at least 1,400 have extended that policy through 2023.

“Test optional does not mean test prohibited" said Rob Franek. "Particularly in the last two years when so many things have been taken away from students. If we just go back to the spring of 2020, classes went from completely in-person to completely online. Most letter or number generating schools went to pass/fail. Extracurricular activities were canceled; students’ after-school work experiences were canceled. In this still hyper-COVID time, more are more students are clamoring to take the S.A.T. to distinguish themselves in the eyes of admission councilors and admission committees.”

The first students to take the new digital S.A.T. will be international students in international testing centers in 2023. The P.S.A.T. will begin its digital life in the fall of 2023 and then the regular digital S.A.T. will begin in the U.S. in 2024. As for the other standardized college admissions test, the A.C.T., that has been given digitally overseas for several years and there were plans to bring that format to the U.S. in 2020. But the pandemic scuttled those plans and for now, the A.C.T will remain a pencil and paper test for U.S. students.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.