How the Digital SAT Supports Neurodiverse Learners

Jed Applerouth, PhD
March 7, 2024
min read
the SAT with a large clock over it

This month the SAT has fully transitioned from the static paper format of old into a digital, adaptive test. The new testing format offers many advantages to students and provides a markedly better testing experience for the vast majority of students. Students with learning differences are among the greatest beneficiaries of the changes to the test.

10 Ways Digital SAT Accommodations Support Students with Learning Differences

1. More time per question solves for so many issues.

For students with learning differences, having adequate time to solve problems is critical. While some students with a diagnosed disability can secure extra time, others may struggle to get an official diagnosis through a psychoeducational evaluation, or they may have been diagnosed late in their high school career.

Whether or not a student with a disability has received an accommodation for extended timing, every student taking the SAT is going to benefit from having significantly more time per question than on any SAT ever administered. The test-writers thoughtfully trimmed the number of test items to allow more students to finish the exam, reducing the processing speed burden on all students. For students with reading challenges, processing speed issues, attentional issues and more, having significantly more time will make a meaningful difference.

Compared to the ACT, the digital SAT allows a whopping 60.5% increase in the amount of time allotted per question on verbal (more than 26 seconds per question) and 59% more time per question on math. That is huge, and a major win for all students with learning differences.

2. The accommodations are built directly into the testing platform, minimizing the potential for proctor error.

For the new computer-based format, testing accommodations are built directly into the Bluebook testing application, reducing reliance upon the proctor and the potential for proctor error.

Students no longer need to rely upon the proctor to faithfully manage timing, extended timing, extra breaks, or giving the 5-minute warning at the end of a section. The app will do this for them. Students now press start when they are ready to begin the section. Proctors no longer give the 5-minute warning: that’s automatic, and the time will flash at the top of the screen. Students can choose to keep the built in timer/countdown clock in view or hidden, depending upon their preference. This can facilitate better time management for students working on their pacing.

Students who are approved for “extra breaks as needed” will have a pause button below the timer, allowing them to manage their breaks as they see fit. All of these changes empower students to manage their own testing experience.

3. Text-to-speech software replaces the need for a human reader.

Students who have historically relied upon a human reader to help them navigate passages on the SAT, due to reading issues such as dyslexia, now have the significant benefit of built-in text-to-speech, screen-reading technology which allows them to adjust the speed and delivery of the text, as well the ability to replay sentences or paragraphs as many times as needed, without worrying about how this might affect their human helper.

For students who need a writer/scribe, this technology is also available through speech-to-text and dictation software.  These technologies put the student more in control of their testing experience.

4. Students have a calculator on every math section.

For the last decade, students had access to a calculator on only one of the two math sections on the SAT. Students with dyscalculia or other math-related challenges had to apply for an accommodation to use a calculator on every math section. Now, the digital SAT has a best-in-class calculator, Desmos, directly embedded into the Bluebook application, available at the touch of a button.

5. A significantly shorter test helps students with attentional challenges.

The entire SAT is now administered in two hours and 24 minutes. That’s such a radical departure from the testing experience of old when the SAT had a full 10 sections and an essay. Taking the SAT with writing was a five-hour experience. That time has now been literally cut in half. For students who struggle with ADHD or other attentional challenges, being able to complete the entire test in under two and a half hours is a godsend.

6. Shorter reading passages help those students with working memory challenges.

The SAT has shifted away from long-form reading passages with 90 lines of text (up to 750 words) and 10 accompanying questions. In the old format, students had to create a working model of the passage and keep more content in working memory while navigating the questions and the passage.

The SAT has now moved to a shorter-form question format: there is a short passage (up to 150 words) and a single question, and then the student moves on to the next passage. This modified form of assessment requires the student to hold much less content in working memory.

7. Math has a much lower reading burden.

The SAT has shifted focus from presenting math in the context of reading passages and word problems towards a more pure presentation of mathematics. The Digital SAT presents a mere 30% of math items in the context of science or social studies or real-world applications, while the remaining 70% of items will be “pure” math problems.

Beyond this, the amount of reading, the number of words per test-item, has been reduced. De-emphasizing reading skills on the math section is a definite benefit for students who struggle with reading, allowing them to shine and showcase their math strengths, without getting bogged down in overly text-heavy math problems.

8. Students can modify the font, color and contrast of the text and background.

Some students, particularly those with dyslexia or vision issues, may benefit greatly from the ability to change the visual presentation of the text to facilitate reading. Some students used to bring color overlays for the paper-tests, or request printed booklets with extra-large fonts. Now students can achieve these effects directly in the testing app itself, adjusting the font size and color/contrast to optimize their reading ability.

9. No more bubbling!

For some students with fine-motor challenges, bubbling in the scantron answer sheet was an issue. Some students would make mistakes on the scantron, getting off track, causing a cascade of wrong answers, and impacting their score. Others would lose credit for answers that were not bubbled in such a way that the machine could faithfully read them. The scantron is now gone, and it’s impossible to get off track or bubble ambiguously or too lightly.

10. There’s a better calibrated challenge level.

The adaptive nature of the test will ensure that students at the lower-end of the reading or math spectrum will receive test-items in the adaptive module that are better calibrated with their ability levels. This may reduce frustration, stress or anxiety caused by facing items at too high of a challenge level.

Looking ahead

The SAT’s transition to a digital format marks a significant evolution in college admissions testing. This transition represents a shift towards greater accessibility and inclusivity, particularly for students who learn differently. With its enhanced accessibility options, and the ability to better personalize the testing experience, the Digital SAT provides a superior platform for all students, particularly those with learning differences, to showcase their academic abilities.

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