In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, both the ACT and College Board (SAT) were forced to adapt to rapidly changing dynamics like school closures and enhanced safety measures that made offering their paper-based tests more difficult. As a result, both have pushed forward with efforts to offer a digital, computer-based test going forward. The companies are taking different approaches to the rollout and test formats, so students in the Class of 2025 and later need to understand the new offerings, their scheduled rollouts, and how they will affect college admissions testing for this class and future classes. Class of 2024: none of this will affect you.
Digital SAT (dSAT)
The SAT is undergoing the most radical change of the two tests. College Board will only offer a paper-based SAT four more times in 2023, and then will exclusively offer the computer-based test to U.S. students starting with the March 2024 test date. They have already implemented the paper-to-digital switch internationally, with the first digital only exams offered this past May.
The dSAT is a new, shorter test based on adaptive principles. While it draws from question types used on the paper SAT, it is structured in a way so that a student’s outcomes on the initial question set in the Reading-Writing and Math sections will affect the types of questions they will see in the second question set for each section, and will dictate how high a score they can achieve. This is a radical departure from the existing test where students’ scores were only a function of the final number of correct answers scaled to the test pool results, not how they had done individually on the first of two sections.
Testers taking a paper SAT know that everyone else has the same test as them, but with the new digital test, a tester should assume that no one else in the room has the exact same test as they do because each person’s test will draw from a pool of questions for each type/section. And because College Board plans to reuse questions over and over, testers will no longer be able to get the details on which specific questions they missed nor the question/answer for review. This may significantly disadvantage students who choose to prepare for the SAT since they are losing key insights into which skills need improvement and in seeing real questions from past tests. The shorter time frame will also likely hurt many students by increasing the time pressure, and the fewer questions make each question more impactful on the final score.
Students may find some advantages in the increased availability and rapid scoring that the digital test will facilitate. College Board envisions school districts expanding the school-day testing program, which now accounts for the majority of SAT exams taken, from one or two days a year to large windows of time that students could take a dSAT within at their high school. While not announced yet, it is likely College Board will also start to offer dSATs in new locations outside the traditional local high school and on new schedules that expand the current seven national test days offered annually. Test scores will also be available in days versus weeks, potentially allowing testing closer to application deadlines for seniors looking to raise their composite score right up to fall application due dates.
While the dSAT is billed as increasing access to the test, the fact that students or the school system must supply a capable testing device (laptop, tablet, chromebook) may leave some students unable to test or to test with unequal capabilities. A student with a 17” screen has a real advantage over a student trying to work through a complex test on a small 12” Chromebook or tablet. If a student has no access to a device personally or through their school, College Board will potentially provide one, but the student must apply at least a month before the test date. The school facilities will also impact students, with access to electricity and reliable internet important considerations.
The Class of 2025 and 2026 will get their first potential exposure to the new test format when the College Board administers the next PSAT in October, which will implement the new digital format for all U.S. test-takers.
Digital ACT (dACT)
The ACT has been slower to offer a true digital version of its college admissions test, with their plans just going public in late May. The announced dACT entails a less radical shift for taking the test digital. Instead of redoing the entire test structure, timing, and scoring, the dACT will be the same as the paper test, just offered in a digital interactive format. Students can prepare the same for both, and depending on their preferences, take either version knowing they are facing the same test, and that everyone testing that day is seeing the same test as well.
ACT currently plans to offer the dACT on the same schedule as the paper test and at existing test centers. The cost will be the same as well. Students will be able to switch between the paper and digital options until the end of late-registration, provided space is available for their new option. A major limiting option here will be that ACT plans for test centers to provide the test device, so dACT capacity will likely be limited to the computers schools can reliably make available. Also of note, the dACT will only work with Windows PC/laptops and Chromebooks, not Apple Macs or tablets, which may also limit availability in some schools.
ACT has stated it anticipates the dACT will increase accessibility and improve accommodations for a variety of testers. Features allowing for digital audio instructions, larger print, and other interactive elements should help some test takers who struggle with the paper format. Students will be able to use the calculator built into the test or bring their own from home. This is another difference from the dSAT, where students will have to use the built-in DEMOS calculator. Personal calculators will not be allowed.
Should You Plan to Take a Digital Test or Wait?
We recommend students in the Class of 2025 develop an admission testing plan as soon as possible so that they can take two of the remaining paper SATs if necessary (August 26, October 7, November 4, December 2). We do not recommend students plan on taking the dSAT as their primary score reporting test for their applications in fall 2024. We would not recommend participating in the first digital administrations when test center staff will be learning new routines and requirements. Increasing a score from one dSAT to another will also likely prove more difficult. How colleges value and equate between the paper and digital SAT also remains to be seen. We are less concerned about the difference between the regular and dACT and the continued use of the paper test allows for both options, and we do not anticipate any issues in colleges valuing the paper and digital ACT equally since the scoring and structures are consistent.
How do you know if you need to get ready for the SAT or ACT? Take a practice test version of each and see which you perform better on and which provides the greatest room for improvement. Everest offers practice tests throughout the summer for rising juniors and seniors to learn which test will best support their college applications. Register for upcoming tests and learn if you need to beat the digital door closing on the paper SAT this December.