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The new SAT is “Adaptive”: What does that mean for students?

The new digital SAT is an adaptive test. Many of our clients have questions about what this means for them and how it will affect their preparation strategy. We want our students to know that adaptive testing is not something to be feared. Like any test format, it can be mastered. And, as with any preparation process, knowledge is power.

Here’s what you need to know about adaptive testing and how to conquer it.

Why adaptive testing?

Adaptive Testing is new to the SAT, but has been a staple of admissions testing for decades. In 1993, the GRE introduced a computer adaptive format, making it mandatory in 1997, the same year the GMAT shifted exclusively to computer adaptive testing. 

Adaptive testing is the future of all standardized testing because it offers many advantages over classical testing. 

  •   Brevity: By nature, adaptive tests are shorter than classical tests. Students prefer shorter assessments.
  •   Security: Paper tests and fixed test forms are inherently insecure. Any bad actor who gets a copy of a fixed test form can share it broadly and compromise an entire testing administration.
  •   Efficiency: Adaptive tests remove the burden of distributing and tracking and scanning paper, creating a more streamlined process for delivering assessments.

One challenge faced by test writers using non-adaptive tests is administering enough items to yield the necessary distinctions between students. For example, the advanced SAT test items which help distinguish a 730 from a 770 are not very helpful for the student scoring in the mid-300s, just as the easiest items are not very predictive for the student shooting for a top 5% score. Having unnecessary items leads to a longer test for students at both ends of the scoring spectrum and all students in between. Adaptive testing lets the test makers find each student’s scoring level more quickly and efficiently.

What are the types of adaptive testing?

The two primary modes of delivering an adaptive test are Item Adaptive and Section Adaptive. The new digital SAT is a section adaptive test, which is significant for students who wish to understand how the new test form will impact their test strategy.

Item Adaptive testing, the framework of tests like the GMAT, uses Item Response Theory to predict the next item to deliver to a student based on past responses. As a student answers more questions correctly, the items delivered tend to increase in difficulty as the software hones in on their level of ability. In this format, early items have more weight on scoring than later items. Missing the first 5 items on an item adaptive test section will have a much more profound effect on your score than missing the last 5 items, and will set you up on a different scoring trajectory.

Section Adaptive testing, the framework used by the new digital SAT, delivers complete sections/modules to students. During the time allotted within a fixed section, students can go back and forth between items and change their answers until the time is up. The items within a given section will not change based on student responses, and early items within a section may not necessarily have any greater effect on scores than those missed later within the section.  The baseline section has a mix of easy, medium and hard items. When that section/module is completed, the software will calculate a score and then deliver the appropriate adaptive module which will have a mix of problems, but be relatively easier or harder than the baseline module.

Does this mean that some digital SAT questions are more important than others?

As indicated in our preliminary analysis of the four digital SAT practice tests, different test items will have different weightings and impacts on one’s score. The test writers may pre-test 6 geometry questions and determine that if a student answers question 3 correctly, they will have a 90%+ likelihood of correctly answering questions 4-6. Rather than include questions 4-6 on the official assessment, the test writers may include question 3 and assign it more relative weight in the scoring. This allows the test-makers to deliver a shorter, more efficient test. 

For students, this means that if you miss a particular question on the baseline module, it may have more relative weight on your final score and the determination of whether you advance to the relatively easy or hard module than other questions. However, as a student, you will have no idea which items have which weighting. This will never be revealed during the test. 

Should students be more concerned about the first few questions on the digital SAT?

While this is the case with item adaptive testing, this is not the case with section adaptive testing and the digital adaptive SAT. There is no telling how much the early items count on any section of the SAT. The higher-weighted items may come at the end or middle of the module or be scattered evenly throughout. There is no reason to stress the first items any more than the other items within a module. Students should focus on doing their best on the module as a whole, just as they would on any section of a paper test, and not become overly stressed if they felt unsure about their answer to an early question within the module.

Does the adaptive nature of the new SAT mean that scoring is harsher/more punitive than the paper SAT? 

Some parents/educators have seemed upset when I mention that if you are routed to the easier module, your score is capped somewhere around a 660. That doesn’t seem fair to them. But the scoring is really not very different from the current SAT. For students who miss 1/3 of the baseline module test items, say 6 items on the baseline math module, they were never going to be in the 700s on any current SAT. The adaptive test is really no more punitive than the paper tests. Missed items count against your final score in both formats.   

What about students who tend to make “careless errors”? (Or, what we prefer to call “avoidable errors.”)

One reality about an adaptive test, with fewer items, is that each individual test item has more relative weight compared to a paper-based test item. The current paper-based SAT has 96 verbal questions (100 minutes of testing time) compared to 54 items (64 minutes of testing time) for the digital SAT. 

If you make 5 avoidable errors on each test, it will cost you more on the digital test, due to the reduction in the total number of items. So if you tend to make these types of mistakes, it’s important you work on that and employ self-checking strategies when taking a shorter, adaptive test. On the plus side, the digital SAT offers significantly more time per question, allowing for a more thoughtful, careful response.

Adaptive testing can get “in your head.” How can students avoid this?  

One of my colleagues likes to remind students to work in the test, rather than work on the test. That is to say, take each problem one at a time. There’s no benefit in wondering whether the item in front of you counts more or less than the previous item. You’ll never know. Similarly, there’s no benefit in trying to figure out if you’ve been routed to the easier or harder module: unless you get a score in the high 600s or above, or the middle 400s and below, you’ll never know.

Stay engaged with each problem as it is delivered. Give each problem your full focus and attention. Worrying about testing outcomes or scoring is not helpful while taking an assessment like the SAT. Those thoughts take away from one’s cognitive capacity and working memory. They really do not serve anyone during a testing administration.  

Mindfulness strategies, such as noting, can help with this. Students can practice observing their thoughts and, when they catch themselves wondering, “Is this the easy or hard module?,” they can simply note the thought and move on, rather than dwell on it. Our tutors work with students on metacognitive strategies like this all the time. 

In addition, being mindful of pacing is beneficial. While fewer students are reporting timing challenges on the more generously timed SAT, it is still important to attend to the clock, particularly on the adaptive modules.

Stay centered throughout the test. When the test begins, it’s important to focus your attention, inhibit distractions, and keep your inner dialogue positive. The first items don’t count any more than the last items, so there is no reason to get hyper-vigilant. Take your time, pace yourself, one problem at a time. 

When the tests move from the baseline to the adaptive module, take a breath, clear your head, and again, take it one item at a time. Don’t worry whether you are in the easy or hard adaptive module. Every adaptive module has a mix of question levels. Trying to count or calibrate how many items are easy or hard is not a productive exercise. Focus on each test item as it comes and stay focused on your goal at hand.


As the adaptive PSAT in October and the adaptive SAT in March draw nearer, students need to prepare themselves for the shift in form, format, and timing. The adaptive SAT offers many advantages for students. A significantly shorter test allows students to show what they know, rather than how long they can focus. A reliable and secure test is an improvement for all stakeholders. With a little practice, students will come to prefer this shorter, and more generously paced SAT, and be comfortable during its administration.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or