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The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

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Opinion | Digital SAT: a better experience, not assessment

Kupunoli Sumi

The SAT has always been a vital component of high school education. For generations, test day has been an intense event given the significance that the test holds in college admissions. With the pencil and paper SAT having been administered for the final time in December, the test’s novel digital format will become the new normal starting in March.. However, this new format, although appealing to many for its novel features and abbreviated length, fails to properly address the longstanding concern that the test adequately assesses college readiness.

The digital SAT—almost a complete rebrand—will introduce a new system of progression and combine the subsections of the paper version. The reading sections will contain both literary and grammatical questions, and will utilize short excerpts with one to two questions attached to each instead of long-form passages.

The math section remains largely unchanged, but a graphing calculator will be allowed throughout the entirety of the section. Both sections feature adaptive progression systems, meaning that a base module is followed by a module whose difficulty depends on the performance of the first.

The College Board claims that the new version will provide “a far better test experience for you,” ensuring better test integrity with a randomized question order, no transportation issues or corruption due to automated grading, faster grading and a more favorable experience for students. 

The testing experience—and more specifically, its difficulty—has been a focal point of discussion regarding the transition. According to a survey of about 50 ETHS students, 65 percent of respondents who took the digital PSAT state that they found the reading and writing section to be easier, and the percentage increases to 70 for the math section. The trend seems to follow suit on a broader level as well. The survey responses name a number of the format’s aspects that were considered as factors that account for its ease, such as the shorter passages and integrated Desmos calculator.

Despite the transition seeming important due to its entirely new format, the exam merely acts as a quality of life improvement for many. The primary consideration in this transition lies in its ability to perform its function as a measurement of preparation for college. The exam does not make a meaningful change to this, and is even deficient in some areas compared to its predecessor.

The SAT has long been questioned for its relevance to the reality of higher education. It serves to measure a student’s ability to perform in an experience similar to a college exam, but doesn’t resemble either a college or high school test. The digital exam is no more familiar, and the Princeton Review—one of the most renowned test prep companies concerned with tests like the SAT—acknowledges this. 

“Be warned that some of the approaches we’re going to show you may seem counterintuitive or unnatural. Some of these strategies may be very different from the way you learned to approach similar questions in school,” its 2023 edition of SAT Prep states.

The fundamental approach to the SAT is also concerningly monotonous, especially for the reading and writing section. The Princeton Review explicitly specifies that the student’s objective in the English section is not to understand a passage intricately, but to identify certain archetypes of questions and recall specific methods to repeatedly apply. 

While this rinse and repeat process might denote a student’s ability to retain information and apply it, most colleges and universities emphasize holistic evaluations of their applicants. With so many schools emphasizing the cultivation of unique perspectives to find intuitive solutions, evaluating a student’s ability to utilize their strengths for innovation offers colleges the best window to evaluate prospective students. 

The SAT’s fixation on such definite end results does not serve colleges in this way. The digital reading section’s shorter excerpts only exacerbate this rigidity when compared to the pencil and paper format’s passages, which might enquire some extent of genuine understanding.

One important issue that the digital format seems to address effectively is testing anxiety. In general, the consensus has been that the SAT is not necessarily an exciting exam to take. It contains difficult content, requires a large amount of mental effort and endurance and demands a lot of preparation. Although the College Board did not intend to make an easier test, the survey, along with a survey by Kaplan Test Prep, suggests that students generally agree that the digital SAT feels easier. What the College Board likely did intend was to make a shorter test with fewer questions, which is more digestible to students. 

The apparent simplicity of the new format can reduce testing anxiety and stress, as is noted by many of the survey’s respondents, which can allow students to think more clearly, be more confident in their capabilities and perform better. This more concise format will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of students, which is a growing concern in the education system with the emergence of the mental health epidemic. 

This significant effort to create a more approachable test, combined with the lack of innovation that it inspires and the critical methodology that it fails to assess, insinuates that this transition serves more as a service for students. Given the scrutiny that the College Board has been under for the principles of the SAT and the emphasis that colleges place on holistic admissions and the concept of “fitting” characteristics, it’s surprising that the administration has not made an open effort to offer a more relevant metric for colleges.

Some claim that the SAT’s observed correlation to college GPA is a signifier that the test evaluates students effectively. Multiple colleges—such as Dartmouth—have acknowledged this and reinstated mandatory score submissions. 

Although the SAT may be a predictor of postsecondary academic success, it prompts the question of whether students can be assessed through a better, more envisioning metric. A possible solution that has been considered is a test that assesses the steps to a student’s critical thinking and thought processes that allow them to produce an answer to a math problem or interpret a passage. The test might ask more open-ended questions regarding pieces of literature and display one’s work towards systematic math problems, like enquiring an optimal solution to a numerical predicament, that could be approached through various methods. 

Though a more difficult exam to administer, testing a student with questions that capture their methodology would allow universities to better understand their intrinsic strengths and the characteristics of their work. Complementing the alleviating brevity of the new digital format, an exam like this could provide a less stressful testing experience through results that are more interpretable to universities. 

If colleges want to foster communities that distinguish themselves and work towards the advancement of society, they must not be so comfortable to associate themselves with a process that constrains prospective students to such definite end goals. It is incumbent upon the College Board to adapt accordingly by building on the precedent that it has set of promoting student wellbeing.

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Emir Bombaci, Opinion Columnist
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