The SAT Is Now Fully Digital for the Remote-Learning Generation

With adolescent anxiety surging and attention spans challenged, high school students will take a revamped version of the SAT on Saturday, which has been designed in part to reduce stress, according to the College Board, which administers the test.

The exam will be briefer — two hours and 14 minutes instead of three hours — and students will have more time for each question. The reading passages will be much shorter, and test-takers will now be able to use an online graphing calculator for the entire math section of the exam.

And after 98 years of students scratching answers on paper, the SAT will now be fully digital for the remote-learning generation.

The College Board said its piloting of the exam showed it was just as rigorous as the paper test, but less intimidating for students. And those with A.D.H.D. and dyslexia, as well as those learning English, reported that they were “better able to maintain their focus” on the digital test, compared with the earlier format, said Jaslee Carayol, director of communications for the College Board.

Delivering the test digitally will also reduce the possibility of cheating, the College Board said, because few students will receive the exact same exam. In both reading and math, test-takers who perform well early in the exam will receive harder questions as they go along. (The College Board says scores will be accurate, regardless of the difficulty of questions.)

There are critics, though. The switch to shorter reading passages has not been universally celebrated by English teachers, many of whom believe that in the face of constant distractions from technology, students need to develop greater reading stamina.

The latest overhaul of the exam comes at a fraught moment for the standardized testing industry, in which most colleges have dropped testing requirements.

According to data from Common App, the number of college applicants submitting SAT or ACT scores plummeted from 76 percent in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle to 45 percent this year.

Even though Yale, Dartmouth and Brown recently made waves by reinstating standardized test requirements, saying the scores are the best predictor of academic success, it is unlikely that most colleges, which are far less selective, will follow suit, said Mary L. Churchill, associate dean at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.

The average acceptance rate among four-year institutions is 73 percent, and most colleges do not face the challenge of having to draw fine-grained distinctions between huge swaths of highly qualified students. Indeed, with some smaller colleges facing under-enrollment and at risk of shutting down, many admissions directors see test-optional policies as a way to encourage more applications, Dr. Churchill said.

Amid this changing landscape, the College Board has successfully promoted the SAT to state policymakers as an integral part of the high school experience, and 16 states now require or encourage students to take the test during the school day, regardless of their plans for life after high school.

In total, 1.9 million students took the SAT in the high school class of 2023, with two-thirds taking the exam during the school day, often for free. In the 2019 class, there were 2.2 million test-takers.

Students will take the exam on an app called Bluebook. In some ways, it tries to recreate the experience of working with paper. There are tools to make highlights and annotations, and to cross out multiple-choice responses students think are wrong.

Test-takers will no longer need to flip back and forth between long reading passages and pages of accompanying questions. Instead, they will tackle a string of much shorter passages — some just one paragraph — each associated with a single question.

Yoon S. Choi, chief executive of CollegeSpring, a nonprofit that provides in-school test prep to low-income students, said the new format was a boon to many, especially English language learners.

But others — including some educators who work with that same population of students — expressed skepticism about the College Board’s revision.

“It seems to me like they are maybe trying to cater to this generation that is doing a lot of reading on the internet, bouncing around from one place to the next,” said Ariel Sacks, a New York City public school English teacher and author of a book arguing for the importance of assigning full novels. “But I don’t think that’s setting a high or even effective expectation for what students should be doing as juniors in high school.”

Ms. Carayol of the College Board acknowledged that reading stamina was important, but said the paper SAT also had not been a good test of that skill.

“Long test passages force students to race through text hunting for answers instead of reading carefully,” she wrote in an email. “There’s a huge benefit for a student by having these shorter passages. If they get uncomfortable or disoriented by a passage, they can skip it and return, rather than having eight to 11 questions tied to each passage.”

At North Houston Early College High School, Adair Rivera, a 17-year-old junior, will take the SAT in the School Day program. He hopes to become the first member of his immediate family to attend college, to study computer science.

Adair said he is earning higher scores on digital practice tests than when he took the paper SAT. He hopes to attend M.I.T. or Yale, which require test scores, or the University of Pennsylvania, which does not.

“It’s a game changer,” he said of the shorter reading passages and shorter exam time. “It doesn’t wear out students as fast.”

Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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