The New Digital SAT and PSAT

The College Board announced that the SAT and PSAT are updating to a digital format over the next 2+ years. Here is anticipated timeline for these changes:

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Source: The College Board

For current sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the United States, these updates will have no impact on their SAT test experience. Freshmen are scheduled to take the digital PSAT in the fall of their junior year–that will be their first experience with the updated digital format. These same freshmen would then be on track to take the digital SAT in the spring of their junior year–over two years from now.



What will be different on the digital SAT and PSAT?

  • The test will be adaptive. Students will take one Reading/Writing question module, and the second Reading/Writing question module will be different depending on the performance on the first section–the math section will also have this two module format. Students who performed well on the first module will receive more difficult questions in the second module, and those who did not perform as well will receive less difficult questions.
  • The digital SAT and PSAT will be shorter. Instead of taking around 3 hours, the new digital SAT will take around 2 hours. As with other adaptive tests like the GRE, the College Board hopes to obtain the same information about students’ skills in a shorter amount of time.
  • Calculators will be permitted throughout the math section. The digital SAT will have a built-in calculator program (apparently much like the one found on the Desmos website). Students will still be able to bring their own approved calculators if they prefer. Roughly a third of the current SAT math is done without a calculator.
  • Students will take the test on a laptop or desktop computer. If students do not have a computer, they will be given one to use. The computer will have a testing program that will lock down other parts of the computer, so students will not be able to surf the web or chat during the SAT. Students will be able to download the testing software on their personal devices prior to test day.
  • Schools will have more flexibility as to when they offer the in-school SAT. Currently, there are a handful of designated days allowed for test administration. With the digital SAT, schools will be given a month or so over which time they can administer the SAT to different groups of students over different days.
  • There will be shorter reading passages. At this point, we do not clearly know if the new SAT Reading will continue to have longer reading passages. We do know that the digital SAT will have at least a few shorter reading passages that have one question tied to them. I personally am skeptical that the SAT will retain its predictive validity unless they continue to have longer reading passages–after all, students read longer materials in college. I hope to get more clarity on this issue soon and I will update you as soon as I can.
  • The test should be more secure. It will no longer be possible for cheaters to obtain copies of the questions and passages they will find on their test, since the test will be adaptive. This change is especially important for international SAT testing, which has been plagued by test score cancellations because of test security issues.
  • Students will receive more helpful career and college information. The College Board is making a concerted effort to connect students not just to four-year college programs, but to vocational and trade programs. So even if a student is not planning on going to college, the SAT will still provide targeted and relevant career guidance.
  • Scores will be available more quickly. Currently it takes weeks to receive SAT test scores; digital scores will take less time to be available.

What will be the same on the digital SAT and PSAT?

  • The SAT and PSAT will still test the same fundamental skills. Unlike the last major test revision in 2015, this is not a complete redesign of the SAT; it is principally a change in formatting. Students will still need to demonstrate skills in reading comprehension, grammar & editing, and mathematical problem solving.
  • Scores will remain the same. The SAT will still be out of 1600, giving colleges the same metrics they have relied on for several years.
  • Minimal changes to test preparation should be required. The SAT will continue to provide its free resources on Khan Academy, helping students bolster their skills in reading, grammar, and math. As a tutor, my recommendation to current freshmen would not change–do not worry about full practice tests at this point; focus on taking rigorous classes in school, and reading widely outside of school. When the GRE shifted from a paper-based to a digital/adaptive format, very few test preparation changes were needed; I would anticipate a similar situation with the digital SAT.
  • Colleges still want to see your test scores. Please see my post on 5 reasons to take the SAT and ACT for more details.

What comes next for the digital SAT and PSAT?

The most important thing for any standardized test is to clearly demonstrate that it can make valid, fair predictions. So far, the digital SAT has only been administered in a pilot program to fewer than 500 students around the world. The College Board outlined their extensive research agenda for the digital SAT over the next 2.5 years:

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Source: The College Board

If the College Board cannot clearly demonstrate the predictive validity of the digital SAT, they will have to make adjustments to it or postpone its implementation. Here are some questions they will need to answer before they can pull this off:

  • Will students who bring in their own laptops to the SAT have an unfair advantage over those who are provided one by the test site?
  • Will students who have a specific accommodation that allows them to take the SAT using paper/pencil have an unfair advantage or disadvantage over those who take it digitally?
  • Will students who experience technological outages and interruptions have statistically valid scores as a result?
  • Will the flexibility that the College Board is allowing schools in administering the test lead to a lack of a standardized testing experience?
  • Will the digital SAT withstand efforts by hackers to access the question banks?
  • Will students who live in rural areas have the same access to digital testing as those who live in urban areas? How will differences in Internet speed and availability of computers be handled?

The bottom line is that sophomores, juniors, and seniors do not need to worry about any of these changes. In the coming years, we will know much more about the specifics of the digital SAT as the College Board completes its research trials. If you have questions about the new digital SAT and PSAT, please reach out to us.

Is the National Merit Scholarship a Big Deal?

To be named a National Merit Scholar is a recognition for which students strive – they will earn accolades from their school, their parents, and their community.  But is it as big a deal as people make it out to be?  In my humble opinion, being named a National Merit Scholar is not nearly as important as it once was for a number of reasons.

  1. You really don’t get that much money. In the 1960s or 1970s, and even when I went to college in the 1990s, the amount of money that the National Merit Scholarship often provides seemed like quite a bit relative to the cost of a college education.  Now, it is pretty insignificant.  You can expect an award of anywhere to $2000-8000, with many of the awards being a one-time scholarship of $2500.  When a private college education costs in excess of $200,000, National Merit is not enough to make a big dent. There are some colleges that may offer full or partial tuition scholarships to National Merit Scholars. These opportunities are rare, however, and the vast majority of National Merit recipients aren’t looking at receiving a ton of money as a result of winning. There are far more opportunities to win merit-based money through college programs like University Scholars, Presidential Scholars, and so on.  Many schools will give full rides to students who not only perform well on the ACT or SAT, but have strong grades and extracurricular activities.  Put your energy and effort into winning a University-based scholarship because that is where the real aid is.
  1. The PSAT doesn’t go on the Common Application. Colleges arefar more concerned about your performance on the SAT and ACT than the PSAT since there are actually spaces for these score results on the Common Application, and no space for PSAT results.  (You can report National Merit recognition as an academic honor on the common application if applicable.)  It is fascinating to me how much more stress people feel going into the PSAT compared to the PLAN, which is the practice ACT.  Other than the relatively insignificant scholarship dollars at stake, they both serve only to give you practice for the SAT or ACT respectively.
  2. Understand that your school wants you to make them look good! Because of the association that adults have with the National Merit recognition and significant scholarship money and academic quality, high school administrators know that having National Merit winners will help their public relations and reputation.  (Take a look at some private school websites and see how frequently they use this as a marketing tool!  Also, do a search of “national merit” on http://www.google.com/news to see how high schools love to play this up.)  As a result, they may overly emphasize the importance of high performance on this test, making you think it will make or break your entire future.  Know that they have an agenda, and don’t let their worries cause you concern.
  1. As our country has shifted its educational focus, the National Merit Scholarship has become less important. I was fascinated to learn that the National Merit program began in 1955.  This was right at the beginning of the Cold War, and two years before the Sputnik Launch by the U.S.S.R.  The U.S. was paranoid about its competitiveness with respect to the Soviets, and was reforming its educational system to emphasize math and science as well as to give highly intelligent students the tools they needed to develop technology that would enable the U.S. to be the best.  The National Merit Scholarship enabled students with high scholastic aptitude to attend great universities at a much lower cost, empowering them to focus on their academic development and become the scientists, engineers and inventors who would ensure American preeminence.  It is no wonder that people who grew up in this era believe the National Merit program to be of extraordinary importance; it once truly was.

    With the Cold War over, American education is shifting towards inclusion and diversity.  As a result, having one test – the PSAT – determine one’s eligibility for a scholarship is deemed by many to be too exclusive.  In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling came out strongly against the use of the PSAT for this purpose:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/09/22/testing

    As time goes on and the memories of the cold war fade, I imagine that colleges will continue to move away from emphasizing the PSAT and National Merit process, will look more comprehensively at a student’s academic and personal attributes when making scholarship and admissions decisions.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

3 Things Students Can Do to Prepare for the New 2015 PSAT

What should students do to prepare for the new PSAT?

1. Read widely and deeply. Students should read texts from a variety of content areas, from world literature to natural science, to become familiar with the types of materials they will encounter. The PSAT reading will not be difficult for most students to finish, so they should focus on learning to read well rather than read quickly.

2. Learn grammar fundamentals. Many students have not had thorough training in grammar. The new PSAT will expect students to thoroughly understand proper punctuation, parallelism, subject-verb agreement, and a host of other topics. Since grammar is often not taught in depth at many schools, students may want to review independently.

3. Brush up on algebra and statistics. There is very little geometry and trigonometry on the new PSAT. If someone is trying to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, they will want to study geometry so they can be prepared for the handful of questions that will arise. If someone has more moderate goals, they can emphasize algebraic and statistical fundamentals.