The Digital SAT's Changes to the Reading: A Deep Dive
Come Spring 2024, high school students in the US will be taking a new version of the SAT, delivered digitally for all. This is by no means the first time the College Board has changed its flagship test. In 2016, the organization updated the exam, shifting it from a 2400-point scale to a 1600-point one—a transformation I observed as an educator. Much earlier, I experienced a changing SAT as a student. In fact, I was one of the first to take the previous version of the exam, released in 2005. As someone who was part of that cohort, I know that an entirely new test can seem daunting. Back then, we were unsure if the new test would be more difficult, or if its novelty would make it more challenging to prepare for. I imagine current students feel much the same way about the digital SAT.
Given these experiences, I can assure you that changes to the SAT constitute neither a new phenomenon nor something to be scared by. In fact, I find the changes to the test can be helpful; after all, they are introduced to construct a better examination. The College Board’s intention is probably not to make the test harder, but to make it more accurate. Here, we’ll take a look at just why the SAT is still testing reading comprehension and how the SAT’s reading component will be presented on the digital exam.
Why Test Reading at All?
Understanding the intentions of a test is important, because once students understand why the SAT tests what it does, they can adjust their studying to reflect the College Board’s goals. Students often view the SAT as merely an obstacle in the way of acceptance to their preferred school. This, however, is not the College Board’s goal: the organization has aspirations beyond ruining a student’s Saturday morning. So before diving into the specifics of the digital exam, it’s worth considering why the SAT asks students to evaluate reading questions to begin with, especially on a timed test.
The College Board designs the SAT’s reading passages to see if students are ready for the readings they’ll see in college. In order to model the readings typically assigned in undergraduate courses, the College Board draws SAT reading passages from real publications. The reading score aims to show how prepared students are for the rigor of such passages, especially as they’ll see it in humanities and science classes, which tend to assign quite the page count. In this way, the SAT tests reading in order to better predict students’ performance at the college level. In fact, one benefit to studying for the SAT is it should assist students with reading in college, too. This can be a motivating factor for students: improvement on the SAT reading should correlate with improved reading comprehension for college. The skills gained by preparing for the SAT will likely pay off down the road.
Naturally, with any new test, intention and execution can fail to line up. We will get a chance to see just how well this new test correlates to college performance over the next few years as the test rolls out and adapts. Yet, based on current questions, the College Board appears to be testing most of the concepts it already did, varying more in how they are asked than in what is asked about.
What’s Changing with Reading? What’s Staying the Same?
There have been complaints from parents and teachers that the SAT does not accurately gauge students’ reading abilities. The current SAT features long passages, which tend to penalize students who take their time to process. But with the digital SAT, it’s out with the eighty-line essay and in with short paragraphs paired with just a single question. In theory, this will help prevent a student’s reading speed from radically changing their score; instead, comprehension skills will come to the fore.
This change has its pros and cons. The students I’ve spoken to about it don’t love the idea— having to read a new paragraph for each question sounds disorienting, they say. However, I suspect students will come to prefer the shorter readings, even if at first the difference feels jarring. It is very easy to lose focus reading a long essay, especially for those students who tend to fixate on details and lose track of the passage’s purpose. The new structure should help solve that problem.
One thing I can say with certainty, though, is that the skills tested will remain largely the same. The College Board stated as much in the digital SAT introduction document it released: “The two sections of the digital SAT Suite—(1) Reading and Writing and (2) Math—also measure largely similar knowledge and skills as their paper and pencil predecessor…”
Students will still need to identify the purpose of a reading, how a passage (albeit a very short one) supports its main claim, how an example is structured, and what authors imply without directly stating. Many, but not all, of the strategies students currently use on the test will still be applicable when the test goes digital. The passage topics will concern science, arguments, historical writing (fiction and nonfiction), contemporary fiction, and, in a new twist, poetry.
Breaking Down a Question
Let’s take a moment to look at a question and see what reading strategies can be retained and which approaches will need to change.
Biologist Gabe Martez has hypothesized that Ursus arctos horribilis, also known as the grizzly bear, gains its distinctive back hump through its digging. This digging motion, Martez claims, results in an upper back muscle that forms the familiar “Grizzly hump” seen in both wild and captive bears. To evaluate this hypothesis, Martez and his team plan to examine two sets of captive grizzly bears. One set will be placed in a sanctuary with very low soil density, while the other will be placed in a sanctuary with very high soil density. The bears will live in their respective sanctuaries for the next year before being evaluated by Martez and his team.
Which of the following outcomes, if true, would refute Martez’s hypothesis?
- Due to the food supplied in captivity, neither group of bears did any digging over the one year period.
- The set of bears in the low soil density sanctuary gained a small “grizzly hump,” while the bears in the high soil density gained a large “grizzly hump.”
- Both sets of bears gained equally sized “grizzly humps” no matter the sanctuary they lived in and dug in.
- The set of bears in the low soil density sanctuary chose to dig each day, while the bears in the high soil density sanctuary did not dig.
The correct answer is choice C. If both sets of bears gained the same size upper back muscle, aka the “grizzly hump,” then the digging they do must not be the deciding factor since, if Martez’s hypothesis was correct, one group would have to put in more effort and would, therefore, develop larger muscles.
But just as telling as an answer explanation is a look at how and why the other choices are wrong. It is here that we will also see some similarities with this test’s precursor despite the difference in passage sizes.
Choice B is the most interesting incorrect choice. Why? Because it’s the choice students will look for if they misread the question and assume that they need to pick the choice that proves Martez’s hypothesis. Basically, Choice B is a correct answer… but to a different question than the one being asked. If you ask me what time it is and I instead tell you the day, I did not say something incorrect, but I also didn’t answer your question. This is a classic SAT trick and one to watch out for on both the current and upcoming digital test.
Choice D is also of note as it is partially correct. Martez’s experiment would be complicated if one group of bears did not dig, but this does not necessarily refute his hypothesis. There was nothing in that choice that revealed the status of their grizzly humps. This is another SAT classic: provide a choice that “partially” works and hope you will focus on that part without evaluating the rest of the choice. You will see that on the current test and the digital.
Another similarity is the content itself. Like the current SAT, the digital SAT will feature many passages that involve science. This will allow the College Board to evaluate how students handle content from high-demand STEM fields, revealing whether students can make inferences about why researchers do what they do and what constitutes optimal outcomes. However, this does not mean that students need to do an exhaustive review of their science textbooks; instead, students should take the time to understand how the current SAT’s science passage place a premium on integrating main ideas, understanding how procedures are designed, making inferences to predict outcomes, and evaluating the author’s intent.
The main change coming to SAT reading will be in the size of the passages, the fact that there are many more passages, and the number of questions that accompany them. A science passage on the current SAT could reach 700 words and present 10 questions. The passage above barely breaks 100 words and asks just one question. On the one hand, this makes things easier, as there is less searching for an answer and less time intensely focused on one topic. On the other hand, with less to work with, students will have limited evidence to glance back to in order to glean a passage’s main idea.
A less significant but more surprising difference lies in the appearance of poetry passages. This is new, and harkens back to poetry questions on the now-defunct SAT II exams. With only one released poetry passage and question, it’s difficult to know for sure how those questions will go. This will change as the College Board releases additional and more advanced questions in the near future.
While it is hard to identify how this may impact students, the reading questions are not merged with grammar questions. Currently, the reading and grammar are two separate sections. Will this phase students as they have to change their mindset? Or will it have no effect as grammar and reading do have a natural relationship? On that one, time will tell.
For students worried about the changes, I suggest not being overly concerned. As someone who was once in their shoes, I understand that a new version of such an important test can provoke anxiety, but, at the end of the day, not as much is changing as first appears. The concepts the test is interested in remain the same; many of the strategies and trap answer choices will remain the same. With practice and preparation, students will have a chance to do just as well on the digital SAT as on the current SAT.