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The New Digital SAT: Just How Worried Should International College Counselors Be?

As an educational consultant who works with many international students, I was concerned when I heard that international SAT exams were moving to a completely digital format beginning in March of 2023. Memories of technological glitches, cancelled or rescheduled tests, and a reduction of test sites when the international ACT exam went digital in late 2018 came rushing back. What would this new announcement from College Board mean for the students with whom I work? 

While we won’t really know if the transition will be as smooth as the College Board promises until the first cohort of students experience the digital SAT, I can identify some pros and cons that I hope will help students plan ahead. Here are my thoughts on the relevant changes and what they mean:

  • More test dates – As part of the digital rollout, international locations will get two additional test dates per year. For my students, this will hopefully mean an end to feeling disenfranchised by having fewer opportunities to take the exam than US-based students. It could also result in a decrease of expenditures (in an already costly process) since students will likely stop flying outside their home country to get ‘one more try’ for a higher score on a more convenient test date. 
  • Flexibility with test dates – A digital exam is easier to administer and allows for more flexibility. However, if school-based test centers decide to hold the exam during school hours (as they are being encouraged to do by College Board) it will be harder for students who are home-schooled or attend schools that are not test centers to register for and take an exam. In essence, the digital SAT exam may be more limiting for some even while being more accessible for others. 
  • Students can use their own device – I must admit that I feel a bit torn with this one. On the one hand, allowing students to use their own devices certainly seems easier than insisting that a test center provide computers for all of the students registered at a test center. Their own device will be familiar and, ideally, they will have used the free prep materials available through Khan Academy to gain familiarity with taking a digital version on their own device. However, students don’t always have access to a device and asking a test center to provide one, as College Board requires, is often easier in theory than in practice.  
  • A shorter exam – The test will be shortened from three hours to two hours and students will have more time per question. This seems less stressful and College Board has reported that a majority of students participating in a pilot study found this to be true. That being said, College Board’s own research suggests that students who are stronger in a language that isn’t English perform better on the reading sections of paper and pencil versions of the SAT. My non-native English-speaking students might not fare well here without rigorous prep and practice. 
  • A section-adaptive test –- A student’s performance on section one will determine the difficulty for section two. While this makes for a dynamic exam that should limit cheating, it also means that the first section will really decide how high a student can score. If a student is having an off day or gets off to a slow start and doesn’t excel at that first section, they might never achieve the score they were aiming for. 
How am I advising my current tenth graders?
  • Relax! – A largely test-optional admission climate has put students in the driver’s seat. Yes, a high score will almost certainly advantage a student, but a weak score doesn’t need to be submitted at the majority of U.S. institutions (for now anyway), so if a student isn’t a strong test-taker, they can direct their efforts to other parts of their application instead.
  • Try it! – I encourage all students to prep and try to do their best. If their scores come back lower than expected or at a place where I am pretty sure they won’t ever hit the numbers that they need for the scores to be useful, they can stop testing and move on to other more important things, like getting top marks in school and participating in activities where they feel fulfilled.
  • Don’t wait! – I work in a culture that is largely “last minute” so while international students in other regions might be scurrying to take a paper-based exam now, mine aren’t. Should they be? There is something to be said for going with the devil you know. If students feel this way, prepping now to take a paper-based exam in the fall might make sense. As with anything, it’s an individual decision.

While change can cause anxiety, the College Board seems to have prepared for every eventuality for the international rollout of the digital SAT next spring. With an 11-page “Digital SAT Irregularity Chart”, we can hope that both they – and our students – are ready for the changes ahead.

Jennie Kent, M.Ed., CEP, is a professional member of IECA, NACAC, IACAC, and HECA as well as being a member of the Small Boarding Schools Association and the Enrollment Management Association. She divides her time between Colombia, Connecticut, and California and enjoys reading, watching films, entering data in spreadsheets, and playing with her Abyssinian cats, Gaspar and Phat Louis.

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