The SAT is going digital. Here’s what to know.

One student with long brown hair and wearing a bright yellow sweater sits at a desk working on a laptop is in focus between two rows of students in the foreground and background.
Students are taking the SAT on a laptop or tablet this year, with the exception of students who have accommodations that specifically require a paper test. (Skynesher / Getty Images)

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No more No. 2 pencils. No more bubble sheets. The SAT this year is entirely digital. And that’s not the only change for the test.

The new SAT is shorter — just over two hours compared with the roughly three hours for the previous SAT and its main competitor, the ACT. It’s adaptive, meaning students who score relatively low on the first half of the test will get easier questions in the second half. There are fewer questions. And students have more time to answer each question.

The College Board, which oversees the test, made all of these changes with the hope of creating a less stressful experience. But the SAT’s status is in flux.

The first U.S. students are taking the new SAT this week; the digital SAT launched internationally last year. The College Board is rolling out the digital test after hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities ditched test score requirements for admissions in recent years. More than 1,800 colleges, including large state systems in Texas and California, won’t require applicants to submit test scores for the fall of 2025, according to data tracked by FairTest, a research and advocacy group. At the same time, some of the country’s most elite institutions are bringing them back.

The test optional movement, as much as the spread of technology during the pandemic, shaped the College Board’s thought process.

“If we’re launching a test that is largely optional, how do we make it the most attractive option possible?” said Priscilla Rodriguez, the College Board’s senior vice president of college readiness assessments. “If students are deciding to take a test, how do we make the SAT the one they want to take?”

Rodriguez said the College Board feels confident that a score of 900 or a 1300 will tell the same story about a student that it did a year ago.

But critics of the test remain skeptical. They question how the SAT can purport to provide objective information about students while changing the test so much from previous years and giving different students different tests. They worry the College Board is essentially conducting an experiment.

“The College Board gets to do what they want, and we have to trust fall into it,” said Jennifer Jessie, an independent college counselor and tutor based in northern Virginia who is steering her students away from the SAT this year.

Digital SAT is shorter — but that’s not all

Rodriguez said the pandemic pushed the College Board to create a digital SAT after several years of internal discussion. Most students have school-issued devices, and they’re used to working on a computer, she said.

“We were hearing that this was the last high-stakes test students took on paper, and it wasn’t natural, and getting those bubble sheets was more stressful,” she said.

The digital test is not just the old test moved to a computer, though.

  • Reading passages are much shorter — a single paragraph — because the longer passages didn’t render well on the screen.
  • Students will read more than 50 short reading passages with a single question each, instead of nine long passages with multiple questions.
  • Students can use a built-in graphing calculator on the entire test rather than having separate calculator and non-calculator sections.
  • The test is adaptive. Based on their performance on the first section, students will get an easier or a harder second section.

Making the test adaptive is what allows the test to be shorter, Rodriguez said. Because it changes based on how students answer early questions, the test can hone in more efficiently on what students can do.

Students who get the easier second section won’t be able to get the highest score of 1600. Rodriguez said that’s because students need to get a lot of questions wrong in the first half to end up with the easier second section.

“The mechanics itself does not preclude you from getting a certain score, but the student performance might,” she said.

Students can take the test on a school-issued or personal device, but they can’t take it at home and they can’t take it on a cell phone. Rodriguez said the College Board will provide laptops for students who indicate at registration they don’t have access to a device.

Students must download and take the test in the College Board’s Bluebook app. It requires minimal bandwidth and can go offline without disrupting the test, Rodriguez said. If a device loses its internet connection as a student is submitting their test, their work should be saved and re-encrypted until the connection is restored.

Students should get their results in a few days, instead of waiting weeks.

Rodriguez said in addition to wanting a better testing experience for students, the College Board wants a test that’s easier for schools to administer, now that two-thirds of students take the SAT during the school day rather than at a Saturday testing site.

In addition, teachers no longer need to store and protect boxes of paper tests or monitor calculator use. And the test takes up less of the school day.

The testing landscape is shifting

The SAT has evolved a number of times since its origins as an aptitude test closely related to IQ tests, said Derek Briggs, director of CADRE, the Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation at the University of Colorado’s School of Education.

In the last decade, the College Board has pushed dual purposes for the SAT — as a predictor of college success and as a way for states to meet federal accountability requirements.

The ACT has also marketed itself that way. Now the SAT is notably shorter — and potentially less burdensome for schools to administer — than its chief rival.

“You can reframe all of these test changes in terms of this battle between these two companies,” said Sheila Akbar, president and chief operating officer of Signet Education, which provides test prep and college advising.

Briggs said a shorter, adaptive test makes sense when entire state populations of students, including those who aren’t thinking about going to college, are taking the test.

An option that includes easier questions might make for better testing experience, Briggs said, and “perhaps students who didn’t think they would go to college would think, ‘Oh, maybe I can’” after taking it.

But Jessie said she’s seen the other scenario as well, where a lower-than-expected score leaves a student feeling like they aren’t cut out for college when the reality is they could be successful at a lot of institutions.

The adaptive aspect of the test concerns skeptics like Akbar and Jessie. They worry students who take longer to warm up or who are prone to small mistakes on easy questions won’t get a chance to show they can answer harder questions correctly.

They’re encouraging students who have to provide a test score to take the ACT, which is available in both paper and digital formats and hasn’t changed much in recent years. They also feel more confident that ACT practice materials align with the test.

The College Board has said both versions of the SAT have a mix of easy, moderate, and hard questions, and there is significant overlap between the tests.

Students can take up to four practice SAT tests through the Bluebook app and get used to the interface before taking the test. Heather Waite, director of college admissions at Kaplan, a company that provides test prep services, said it’s important that students practice with up-to-date materials, not previous year’s prep books.

Waite said students have provided positive feedback about the shorter test.

College advisers expect more universities to bring back test score requirements, and a good score can boost an application at some test-optional schools.

“At Kaplan, our students are looking for an edge over other students, and submitting their scores is something that makes them more competitive,” she said.

Erica Meltzer is Chalkbeat’s national editor based in Colorado. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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