No more filling in bubbles or waiting for proctors to collect the exam sheets: The SAT is now digital, along with some other modifications.
Students taking the test internationally were the first introduced to the new format in 2024. It won’t be offered in the U.S. until March 9, 2024.
“We had been hearing feedback from students and educators about what it’s like to take the SAT and what it’s like to give students the SAT,” says Priscilla Rodriguez, senior vice president of college readiness assessments at the College Board, a nonprofit that develops the SAT and other standardized tests and curricula. “And some of the rigidity, stress and the length of the test, we could only make those kinds of changes going digital.”
How Do Colleges Use the SAT?
“You aren’t your ACT or SAT score, you are more than that,” says Sal Khan, founder and chief executive officer of Khan Academy, a nonprofit education company. “I think if you talk to any college admissions counselor, they would also agree with that. (But) in a world where every school has different grading systems … a test like the SAT at least gives a consistent signal for readiness to do college-level work.”
Some schools are moving away from weighing standardized test scores heavily in the admissions process. Many students experienced barriers to test-taking due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And there have been well-documented racial disparities in testing outcomes, which many say widen college access gaps. For the class of 2020, nearly 60% of white students and 80% of Asian students hit the college readiness benchmark in math, while less than one-quarter of Black students and one-third of Hispanic or Latino students did the same, the nonprofit Brookings Institute reported.
More than 1,900 four-year U.S. colleges and universities, a record, are test-optional for fall 2024, according to FairTest, a national advocacy group.
Aside from a new digital format – which was taken by more than 300,000 students internationally in 2024, according to the College Board – other adjustments to the SAT include a shortened test, the allowance of graphing calculators throughout the math portion and faster results.
“Overall, I think it’s a great change and is meeting students where they are at,” says Ross Lingle, career counselor at Whitefish High School in Montana. “Colleges are going more test-optional, so I think it’s helping to keep the SAT relevant and making it more approachable.”
Despite the overhaul, the SAT remains on a 1,600-point scale and continues to test skills related to the three subject areas of reading, writing and math.
Here are some of the most important SAT changes:
The new digital test is adaptive, which means that how students do on a set of test questions affects the difficulty of a subsequent set of test questions. This method is used in other large-scale tests and improves testing security while allowing for a much shorter test, Rodriguez says.
Though it’s digital, it is not a take-home exam. Tests are offered during the school day or weekend, under the watchful eye of a proctor. But now, students can bring their own laptop or tablet, use a school-issued device or borrow a device provided by the College Board.
Additionally, the digital test is designed to ensure that students won’t lose their work if there’s a broadband issue or power outage.
Shortened Test Day
From start to finish, the test day is shorter for both students and educators. The length of the exam was reduced from three hours to two. And due to the digital format, proctors no longer have to deal with packing, organizing and shipping test materials.
Questions are also more concise. For instance, lengthy reading passages were replaced with shorter versions. Only one question, rather than multiple, is tied to each reading.
“We still want students to have rich texts that they need to read, understand, analyze and answer questions about,” Rodriguez says. “But these walls of texts were not going to work on a digital device.”
Authorized Use of Calculators
The previous SAT divided the math section into two parts: noncalculator and calculator portions. Now, a calculator is allowed for the entire math segment.
Students can bring their own graphing calculator or use one that’s embedded in the exam, which experts say reduces test-day barriers. Not every student is able to afford a graphing calculator, as average prices range from $100 to $200.
Expedited Score Results
Rather than waiting weeks to get results, students receive score reports from the digital tests in a matter of days. Reports have typically included percentile rankings and a breakdown of a student’s score. They’ve also provided information about four-year colleges and scholarship opportunities.
Under the new format, the College Board plans to add resources about local community colleges, workforce training and career options, Rodriguez says.
Impact of the SAT Changes
With the SAT considered a “high stakes” exam, many students feel pressure to perform well. In a November 2024 pilot launch of the digital version, 80% of participants found the new format “less stressful” than the paper test, according to the College Board.
“What I hope and want is for students to be able to come in and just focus on demonstrating what they’ve learned and what they can do in the core reading, writing and math areas,” Rodriguez says. “And have a lot of the stress around the test, the rigidity, the policies, all melt away.”
Stress is not the only barrier to the exam. The SAT has long faced criticism around equity. Costs related to registration can limit a student’s ability to retake the test to achieve a higher score. And while some students can afford high-priced SAT tutoring courses to get a competitive edge, many take the exam with much less preparation.
The College Board implemented free preparation resources, fee waivers and weekday testing to address some of these issues over the years. But as the SAT moves online, experts are divided on whether the new changes will address testing access and inequities.
Some experts predict that the digital format could improve access due to the time reduction, supplied devices and tools, and potential flexibility with test dates.
“For students in rural areas, like ours, we’ve had a pretty big decrease in testing opportunities,” Lingle says. “Part of that is the length of the old test and the challenge of the administration, like the number of hours it takes to prepare and get to the testing facility. It turns off testing supervisors … With the shorter administration and less paper to package and account for, I think there’s going to be more opportunities for students to take it in their area.”
Other experts are hesitant, saying it’s too early to tell how the changes will affect individual students and address existing race gaps.
How to Prepare for the Changes
Students have several options to prepare for the test, including national test-prep companies, private tutors and self-guided online resources. Khan Academy, for example, offers free practice exams, videos and testing strategies on its website.
Adam Ingersoll, co-founder and principal at Compass Education Group, a tutoring service, recommends students become familiar with how to use the built-in Desmos calculator.
“The students who have the fanciest, expensive graphing calculators, historically, would have some advantage,” he says. “The integrated Desmos virtual calculator is arguably better than those stand-alone graphing calculators. And it’s free to learn how to use.”
Despite these format changes, students should not automatically pick the SAT as their college admissions test of choice, experts say. They should take practice tests for both the SAT and ACT to determine the better fit.
Many students may find the digital SAT’s “shorter, slower-paced format more comfortable,” Ingersoll says. “But it doesn’t mean it actually shows up in a higher score compared to their ACT for all kinds of technical and personal reasons.”