After nearly a century of pencil and paper, the SAT is going digital. (Getty Images)

The SAT Is Back. Or Is It?

Elite schools have reintroduced standardized testing—but does a new, all-digital exam mean standards will slip?

On a cold morning in December 2019, I woke up at 6 a.m., ate a light but energizing bowl of oatmeal and banana, and headed out to Brooklyn, my pump-up playlist blasting. I was about to take the SAT. Sitting in that classroom with my number two pencils lined up neatly, sharp as weapons, I had no idea that only six months later, Brown University, the school I was applying to, would completely scratch its testing requirements. Back then, it felt like the most consequential day of my young life. Had I been one year younger, it would have been entirely unnecessary.

Four years on, Brown, where I am now a junior, has reversed course, joining Yale and Dartmouth in bringing back standardized testing. Brown cited analysis that “made clear that SAT and ACT scores are among the key indicators that help predict a student’s ability to succeed and thrive in Brown’s demanding academic environment.” After a substantial study, Brown seems to have rediscovered what we’ve all known for years: the SAT works. 

But just as these elite schools announced they were reintroducing testing requirements, the test itself underwent its most radical change in years: this year, the SAT went digital. On March 9, 2024, after almost a century of using nothing but pencil and paper—filling in those oval bubbles, chewing up erasers—students sat the first on-screen SAT. 

The new, bring-your-own-laptop SAT is also shorter, down from three hours to two hours, 14 minutes. There are far fewer questions too, meaning there’s more time to answer each one, and the reading passages are shorter, with one question attached to each—a major shift from the typical multiple-page passages followed by 8–11 questions. 

“Students do a lot of their learning and testing digitally these days. Our goal was to provide a testing experience that is more relevant to today’s students and is less stressful for students to take and easier for educators to administer,” said Priscilla Rodriguez, senior vice president of College Readiness Assessments at College Board. 

The new SAT will have “adaptive questions,” a system in which the students who answer more questions correctly receive increasingly difficult questions, and those doing poorly receive easier ones. In a post explaining the change, College Board wrote, “You’ll be presented with questions tailored for your abilities. You won’t be presented with questions that are much too hard or much too easy. You can be confident that you’re going to end up with an accurate score.”

But the old-school tests already came up with an accurate score. They were based on how many of the set questions you got right. In a time when the human attention span is one second worse than that of a goldfish, the answer is not to keep lowering the bar. 

And it’s not just excellence that’s at stake, but equality too. When schools went test-optional, it actually hurt the underprivileged kids the most: a Dartmouth study showed that low-income and first-generation applicants who scored in the 1400s were twice as likely to be accepted if they submitted a score than if they did not, while wealthy students showed no such difference. 

Will the new test be rigorous enough to level the socioeconomic playing field? Robert VerBruggen, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an education policy expert, offered some reassurance. He told me that “adaptive questions” were designed to make the test even more accurate and efficient by “pinpointing where a student is in the ability distribution, using fewer questions.” 

Maybe it’s too soon to write off the new SAT—or to look down my nose at the Brown undergrads who didn’t have to stare down the barrel of the blue booklet, waiting for the proctor to give the go-ahead to discharge our pencils onto those As, Bs, Cs, or Ds. Instead, through gritted teeth, I’ll wish this year’s applicants luck and a piece of advice: eat oatmeal with banana, and don’t forget a charger. 

Evan Gardner is an intern at The Free Press and a junior at Brown. Read his last essay “Country Music and Me: My Great Migration in the Wrong Direction.”

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