If you plan to apply to universities in the United States – or certain institutions in Europe – one criterion for admission is a student’s SAT score.
The SAT has recently undergone a monumental change, shifting from a paper-and-pencil-based test to a computer-based, adaptive assessment. Currently, the paper-based test is still being administered to U.S. students; the digital model will commence administration at the beginning of 2024. For students taking the test outside of the United States, however, the SAT is, for the first time in its ninety-six year history, available solely in a digital format.
In this article, we will explore this paradigm shift, examining the differences between the old and new format and outlining the changes to the Verbal portion of the test – while making some recommendations for refined testing strategies students can employ for certain types of questions. Next week, we will release a companion piece that tackles the more subtle changes in the Math section of the digital exam.
A Very Brief History of the SAT
The SAT was first administered in 1926 and, since then, has been the most well-recognized standardized test for college admissions. In recent years, the test has become an optional part of the admissions process for many colleges and universities in the United States. However, a strong SAT score is still a powerful augmentation to the rest of a student’s admissions package and can be a difference maker for many university hopefuls. The SAT has gone through many different iterations over the years, but its most recent update is, perhaps, the most drastic shift that has ever been made for the test.
In January of 2022, the College Board – the company that develops and administers the SAT – announced the forthcoming shift into a digital adaptive format. A year later, the first pilot tests were administered to students internationally. The digital test is boasted to be “easier to take, easier to give, and more relevant.” With a testing time of 2 hours and 14 minutes (64 combined minutes for the Reading and Writing modules, 70 combined minutes for the Math modules), the digital test has been trimmed considerably, with a testing time that is nearly one hour shorter than its paper counterpart.
As mentioned, the revised SAT is an adaptive test. Both the Reading and Writing and Math sections start with a diagnostic module. Depending on a student’s score on this initial module, they will move on to either an easier or more difficult second module. If a student misses enough questions on the initial module, their potential section score will be at a lower ceiling, even if they answer every question correctly on the second (easier) module.
The digital structure lends itself to certain advantages for administration. First, students can bring their own devices to the testing center and use the same secure platform on which they take practice tests. Second, the College Board has been able to add two additional dates for international students, matching the seven dates offered for students in the U.S. Third, delivery of results will, in theory, be much faster, with students receiving their scores in a matter of days instead of two weeks; it is worth noting that, at the time of writing, no digital results have been returned to students in less than two weeks.
In addition to the sweeping structural changes, the introduction of the digital SAT ushers in noteworthy content shifts in both sections. The most glaring of these changes can be seen in the Reading and Writing modules.
One Passage Per Question
On the Verbal sections on the paper-based SAT, students are presented with longer-form passages and asked various questions surrounding them. On the revised digital test, each question is connected to a single passage. Although some passages on the digital test are quite dense and can include difficult terminology or outdated language, digital testers will not have to wade through ninety-plus line passages that are associated with multiple questions. If a student is struggling with a particular passage on the digital SAT, they can skip it and come back if time allows; whereas on the paper test, each passage is connected to ten or eleven separate questions. While students taking the digital SAT will not be able to work into a groove on a passage over several questions as they can on the paper-SAT, most students report a preference for the shorter-form digital passages.
Reading and Writing Questions Ordered by Type
Whereas the paper-based SAT separates Verbal questions into the “Reading” and “Writing and Language” designations, the digital SAT combines them into one section. However, unlike the paper-based test, which has different questions scattered throughout each section, each module of the digital Reading and Writing Section is organized so that all questions of a certain type appear in one place. For example, a section might start with three “Words in Context” questions, followed by two “Test Structure and Purpose” questions, and so on.
This question organization has ramifications for student strategy. Aside from increased predictability, the fact that the digital SAT front-loads time consuming reading questions can be a boon for students. Based on how they work best, students can tackle the longer-form questions first or skip to the back half of the test, building momentum with the quicker grammar questions. Therefore, when students work through the test, they are encouraged to be nimble in their approach – and to not hesitate to deviate from the chronological questions order.
One advantage of the Reading and Writing section of the digital test is the predictable structure it follows. Again, this repeatable format allows students to pick and choose the order in which they attempt questions that most benefits them. According to the practice tests that have been released so far and information from students who have taken official administrations, the structure of the test is as follows:
Words in Context (2-8 questions per module)
Text Structure and Purpose (1-3 questions per module)
Cross Text Connections (1 question per test)
Central Ideas and Details (0-3 questions per module)
Command of Evidence (1-7 questions per module)
Inferences (1-4 questions per module)
Standard English Conventions (6-12 questions per module)
Rhetorical Synthesis (1-6 questions per module)
The official terminology (above) provided by the College Board can cause some confusion, but we will attempt to demystify things (below). Among these question types, there is much overlap in content that appears on the paper-based test. Nevertheless, this test does feature some brand new content.
– What is Similar –
Standard English Conventions
The type of question in the digital format that most resembles its paper counterpart is that of “Standard English Conventions.” As on the paper-based test, the digital test measures students’ knowledge of basic English grammar rules. The grammar categories tested here are Boundaries (clauses and commas); Form, Structure, and Sense (verbs, pronouns, redundancy, apostrophes, and modifiers); and Transitions. Nearly every one of these rules appears on each SAT Writing and Language section on the paper version. On the other hand, with fewer questions on the digital test, modules can focus on several rules while completely omitting others
One grammar rule that has been reintegrated into the digital test is that of the secondary function of semicolon: as a separator in complex lists. This rule has been all-but phased out of the paper-based test, but has appeared on both practice and official tests in the digital format.
Central Ideas and Details
The majority of questions students encounter on the Reading section of the paper-based test fall into two categories: questions on specific details from the passage and those that test a more general understanding of the reading. “Central Ideas and Details” questions cover both categories. So far, we have seen that “details” questions outnumber “central ideas” questions.
One significant change from the paper-based test is that answer choices on the digital test tend to be more specific and direct, while paper-based main purpose questions can use vague language. Two similar questions from a paper-based and digital test, respectively, are included here for comparison:
Command of Evidence
This type of question synthesizes some of the elements that appear on the paper-based test, but tends to follow a more predictable structure than similar questions from that format. Students are asked to analyze a text and/or data table and, using that information, decide which answer most directly supports or disproves a particular example, claim, or conclusion. Examples of both “textual” and “quantitative” “Command of Evidence” questions are below:
Close and careful reading is key for students when approaching these questions. Sometimes the included information is dense, and if a student skips over a word or data point, they can find themselves unable to decide on an answer choice.
Text Structure and Purpose
While occasional questions on the paper-based test require students to analyze a text based on structure, the digital test employs this type of question on every module. “Text Structure and Purpose” questions invite students to consider the structural context of an excerpt and to apply knowledge of rhetorical skills that are key components of the paper-based Writing and Language section.
– What is New –
Words in Context
Studying vocabulary has not been a priority for students preparing for the SAT since the paper-based test shifted into its current form in 2016. Although some tricky vocabulary appears in certain reading passages and students are expected to differentiate between words with similar meanings, test takers should be able to successfully navigate these questions by looking closely at the surrounding context. With the digital version, the College Board has modified “Word in Context” questions so that a certain knowledge of vocabulary is all-but necessary for success. Although context clues are still very helpful to a student’s understanding, correctly answering certain questions will be difficult without at least a vague understanding of the words in the answer choices. To date, a list of digital SAT vocabulary words has not been released by the College Board, but students can set themselves up for success by working to understand linguistic patterns: a deep knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and root words can help students to more successfully approach even the more advanced vocabulary.
Cross Text Connections
The paper-based Reading section presents five sets of questions and passages; one of these sets always consists of a pair of passages, which students need to compare and contrast. Those who struggle with these passages have cause to rejoice on the digital SAT: paired passages have now been relegated to a single question on each administration. “Cross Text Connections,” a new question type, asks students to understand both perspectives with enough nuance to determine how one passage’s author(s) would respond to the conclusions in the other passage. An example is below:
Another new question type is “Inferences” questions. The Reading section on the paper-based test includes a handful of questions that ask the student to “infer” based on evidence or what is “implied” or “suggested” by the text. “Inferences” questions on the digital test go one step further. Students are presented with a short passage that includes a series of statements and are asked to pick an answer choice that best completes the text with a logical inference.
These questions use a familiar logical framework, and students would be wise to use only the evidence provided as stepping toward the inferences in the answer choices.
“Rhetorical Synthesis” questions are unlike anything that has appeared on recent modern incarnations of the test. These questions are included at the end of each module and present a series of notes taken on a topic and ask the student to interpret relevant information from those notes in order to answer the question.
An example is below:
With a sometimes disparate collection of information, “Rhetorical Synthesis” questions seem as if they could be relatively time consuming; however, students can use a smart shortcut here: by skipping the bullet-pointed notes and using deductive reasoning to eliminate clearly incorrect answer choices, students can find the best answer purely by using context clues.
The Takeaway and Next Steps
In its revised format, the digital SAT carries distinct advantages: shorter administration, greater operational flexibility, and a format preferred by many students. With a more robust understanding of the test structure and a systematic but nimble approach, students taking the digital SAT can be empowered to make this test a key to open doors for them in the admissions process. We suggest that students begin by taking the first free digital practice test available through the College Board website (save the other tests for later!) to get a more hands-on idea of the format and questions.