Bring Back the Paper SAT

Switching to the digital SAT was the wrong move for the the College Board.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Sabrina Tam

On March 8, I was with my parents when I received an email with a room assignment for the optional digital SAT that I was registered to take in two weeks. “Why not take it? we figured, “It’s free.What none of us expected was that my score would be a full 80 points lower than the paper SAT I had taken months before. I had prepped for neither exam. 

I soon learned that many shared my experience. My peers who did well enough on the paper SAT took the free digital exam Stuyvesant offered. They were excited to be part of the first class of students ever to take it in the U.S.—only to watch their scores drop drastically. For many of us, this new format felt wrong. 

The SAT, which is almost 100 years old, is administered by the College Board. It is designed to “show [a student’s] potential to succeed in college and careers,” and the test can “help colleges compare students from different high schools.” The exam is scored out of 1600, as it has been for much of the test’s history, and continues to be administered at a testing site with proctors and any approved testing accommodations for students. The digital exam will “still [be] measuring the knowledge and skills that matter most for college and career.” The same goes for the PSAT 11, which is used to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. 

Despite these seemingly consistent rules, there are many differences between the paper and digital formats. First of all, the exam is now administered on the Bluebook application. Instead of being upwards of three hours, the digital SAT only takes two hours and 14 minutes. On the English portion of the exam, there are “shorter reading passages instead of a few long texts.” On the math portion, Desmos, a built-in calculator, is available. 

Perhaps most importantly, the digital SAT and PSAT are now multistage adaptive tests, which means the tests change according to individual performance. Theoretically, this is beneficial for students because it allows the score to reflect individual capabilities. The English and math sections are each split into two modules. The first module has a similar level of difficulty for each student and contains easier content to gauge the knowledge of the tester, but the succeeding module is adjusted based on student performance. Therefore, many students get caught up in overthinking which difficulty level they receive. 

The adaptable format is a response to criticism that standardized exams are inherently unfair because there is a direct correlation between race/income and test scores. However, switching to a digital format could exacerbate existing inequalities, disadvantaging students who lack reliable internet access or familiarity with digital testing platforms. At Stuyvesant’s two free in-school digital SAT administration days for all juniors, the school provided every student with identical Chromebooks. However, many high schools do not—and cannot—provide their students with devices to test with, which can add stress to an already high-pressure exam as students race to find devices to borrow. Instead of the digital format allowing the SAT to be more accessible, many students with limited access to technology at home cannot adequately prepare for the digital SAT—the practice exams online and on Bluebook are vastly different from any practice exams in prep books or paper SAT materials. Unfortunately, in New York City, accessing computers for free is not getting any easier. Since the slashes to the New York Public Library’s budget have begun, libraries, which provide public access to computers, have reduced hours. As a result, many students struggle to prepare for this foreign format of the already stressful SAT.

To be sure, the paper format is much more familiar to many students—people who have been through the New York City public school system have been taking state exams since the third grade. The digital SAT is a much more difficult format because it’s harder to physically annotate passages, graphs, and questions. While there is a highlighting feature, it only works to mark passages and questions, a less efficient practice that limits the actions of the test taker. Students learn very early on to annotate as they read—a popular test-taking strategy—and it is much harder and takes longer to do this digitally. This presents a potential explanation as to why many students’ SAT averages have dropped significantly with the transition to the digital SAT. The paper format of the exam comes much more intuitively. Thankfully, a redeeming quality of the digital SAT is that test takers don’t have to worry about most technical difficulties—the test can be administered even without a consistent internet connection—although with the paper SAT, this was never a concern).

Coming out of the digital SAT, many students felt more confident, but their actual scores didn’t seem to reflect this. Most students have mixed feelings. Junior Abel Bellows explained, “I prefer it, but it is a worse test. I can’t imagine how it can test you as effectively.” Shortening the test makes testing fatigue much less of an issue. However, in shortening the reading section, the College Board has completely transformed the nature of the test. There are more grammar questions, and each question only corresponds to one small chunk of text, which is often just a couple of sentences. How can just one question truly test comprehension? 

And, while you don’t need them anymore, you can still bring pencils, erasers, and a calculator. Admittedly, the built-in calculator is fantastic. Plus, physical calculators that can perform the same functions tend to be very expensive. Since there is a clock on the computer screen, students need not worry about finding their own analog watch or using that watch to track how much time they waste filling the answer sheet. 

Despite these benefits, personalized clocks have their own issues. Junior Zoe Chun explained that since proctors don’t have students begin their exams at the same time, “sometimes people end a bit earlier than you and then you have to block out all their noise and chatter as they get up for their breaks.” With the paper SAT—where all students begin and end each section of the SAT together—this is not an issue. 

The good news is that digital scores are available much more quickly, and students don’t have to worry about anything happening to the answer sheets—take, for example, the 2022 incident in El Paso, Texas, when 55 answer sheets flew out of a UPS truck. Similarly, the College Board argues that “with the current paper and pencil SAT, if one test form is compromised it can mean canceling administrations or canceling scores for a whole group of students.” It is much harder to cheat on the digital SAT. Since the test is adaptive, there are many different questions and practically every exam is unique. Therefore, if a student cheats on the digital SAT, only their exam will be invalidated—or whatever penalization the College Board deems fit. Since other students had a different set of questions, their scores are not discredited. 

If the College Board continues administering these digital exams, they need to be more standardized. As of now, students are allowed to bring their own devices for these exams. Therefore, some students may take exams on touchscreen devices, while others may have to deal with sticky keys. As it is, any technical mishap during a digital test could throw off a test taker. 

In theory, digital SAT scores should translate to the scores students received with the traditional format. At Stuyvesant—the alma mater of the CEO of the College Board—this has not been the case. As colleges revert to test-mandatory policies—requiring SAT/ACT scores from all applicants—the digital SAT creates an unnecessarily complicated situation for students whose scores have dropped. 

I, for one, will be submitting my paper SAT score, because I am lucky enough to have taken the last ever—as of now—paper SAT in the United States. Students and their parents must implore the College Board to bring back the paper SAT. After all, the College Board claims to attempt to make the exam more approachable for people from all backgrounds. The College Board should offer paper versions of the SAT and PSAT—enough students take these important exams that testing centers could have rooms designated for both.