Problems with the New Digital SAT (dSAT)

Starting in 2024 the SAT will be fully online. Last week, in the first part of my series on the new digital exam, I focused on the positives [HERE]. Today I will discuss some of the problems. 

New and Unproven

College Board has been administering this new digital SAT for all international exams over the past year and the 2023 PSAT was fully digital, so we aren’t talking about a completely unexpected experience. However, for the next six to twelve months, we will see how the digital exam holds up to the experience College Board describes. 

  • How long will it take for students to receive scores?
  • Will students see comparable scores compared to the paper and pencil version?
  • How will test day tech issues be handled?
  • Will College Board release more practice material? 
  • How transparent will College Board be on scoring?

As someone who teaches test prep, I have a lot more questions related to scoring, practice material, and tested content. The problem right now is most questions are answered with a “wait and see.” 

Tech Access

Students are expected to take the new digital exam on their own devices. Phones are not acceptable testing devices, so students need to bring a tablet, iPad, or notebook computer. (One with battery life of at least three hours because College Board will not allow anyone other than extended time testers to plug in devices; extended time testers are not guaranteed access to an outlet for the full exam— just part.) 

This creates a huge access issue. College Board states they are committed to helping students who don’t have their own device, but asking students to check with school, family, and friends, and as a last resort request a devise, puts an added burden on test takers. 

We have plenty of devices at my house. When my son was preparing for the PSAT, we discovered the computer he takes to school wouldn’t install the College Board’s Bluebook software. His computer is a few years old and his operating system doesn’t support Bluebook. Fortunately, we had another notebook computer he could use. AND we discovered the problem in plenty of time to make other arrangements. 

Tech Issues During Testing

Even if you have an up to date College Board approved device with plenty of battery life, you may experience tech issues during testing. 

The nice thing about the paper and pencil method of testing is that once the booklets are distributed, very few things can interrupt testing. 

That hasn’t been the case with digital exams. 

In 2020, College Board scrambled to find a way for students to take AP exams during the pandemic. Every day we had stories of frozen screens, students “kicked out” of the testing program, and answers that wouldn’t submit. Maybe we can overlook these problems— it was the pandemic after all. And College Board says their Bluebook App will allow students to complete the digital SAT even if the internet goes out and save results on their device until submitted. But it shows that College Board does not have a problem rolling out digital testing, even if they are not fully prepared to handle the issues. 

We saw other tech problems this fall with the PSAT. I spoke with a member of the technology team at a prestigious private high school. They had worked for weeks to make sure everything in the building was ready. (They take student testing seriously including planning for backup power and internet options.) They had helped all students install Bluebook. The first problem struck the night before. Apparently the IOS update for iPads that came out a week earlier would prevent students who had installed the update from using Bluebook. The team scrambled to arrange alternatives. The next problem occurred on test day. Even having taken care of the iPad issues, some devices were not working. Instead of starting the exam at 8:30 as planned, the campus finally started around 11:30. 

Can you imagine having to sit and wait three hours to start a major exam? Or simply being told that your device won’t work and you have to come back for the next SAT date? What if you test at a school that doesn’t have a dedicated technology department highly invested in making the process run smoothly for each student? How well will your school or local testing site prepare for the SAT?

Unfortunately, I expect we will see a number of testing issues this spring. Hopefully problems are resolved quickly and with little impact on students, but this could be a major problem with the digital test in its first year. 

Digital Discourages Paper and Pencil Thinking

I’ll save for my students the big lecture on why “paper and pencil thinking” plays a significant role in score improvement. It just does. 

How many students who can solve an advanced algebra or geometry problem on paper can do the same thing in their heads? I can’t and I’m a great test taker. 

For years I’ve taught the value of elimination when it comes to reading, grammar, and math. Marking off wrong answers makes it easier to examine the differences among remaining choices. 

A digital exam that only requires students to click on the correct answer discourages the paper and pencil work that promotes deeper thinking and leads to higher scores. Yes, College Board does offer a feature in Bluebook that allows students to eliminate choices, but students need to know about this option and use it. 

Students will be provided scratch paper (must bring your own pen/pencil), but it will take practice to effectively use it when all the exam content is on the device. 

Insufficient Practice Materials 

We only have a few practice tests from College Board to help students prepare for the digital SAT. This is a problem. 

If you have a student who isn’t likely to do more than take a practice test or two (the bare minimum), the existing materials are sufficient. If you have a student who will do even moderate preparation, they will not have enough digital SATs. 

I can come up with alternative exercises, but it will never be as good as having official materials from College Board. 

Test Room Distraction

One benefit of the digital SAT is that time is precisely kept by your devise, but this means not everyone in your testing room will start (or finish) at the same time. 

Imagine the person behind you can’t get their test to start when the proctor announces you can begin. They have to call over the proctor and even their quiet discussion could result in a few minutes of a less-than-silent testing environment. Then towards the end of the test, when you are working your hardest to complete those last few challenging math questions, the students in front of and beside you finish. The proctor has to collect their scratch paper and return their belongings. Ideally proctors will find ways to minimize this issue, but it is a potential problem. 

Adaptive Scoring

A HUGE issue that relates to the lack of practice material, unproven and potentially confusing scoring, and a difficult issue for test day strategy is the new exam’s adaptive scoring. 

Basically, a student who does better on the first section of a subject will be given a harder second section that comes with higher scores. Students who struggle with the first section will be given an easier second section. This means we could have two students with an equal number of correct answers who receive two different scores. Ugh! I’m not looking forward to explaining this to already nervous test takers. 

This added complexity is detailed enough that I’m devoting all of the next article to explaining the issues and the overall strategy test takers need to understand. 

Conclusion

As you can see there are some potential downsides to the new digital SAT. The first few test dates this spring will reveal how pervasive these problems actually are. As a parent, I don’t want my kid to be a Guinea pig for College Board when it comes to something as important as the SAT. You will have to weight these potential problems to know if the digital SAT might be right for your junior this spring. 

Digital SAT, dSAT, New SAT

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