Who Needs Paper? Many Students Embrace the All-Digital SAT.

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Who Needs Paper? Many Students Embrace the All-Digital SAT.


The Scantron bubbles were gone. So were the page-long passages and the pressure to speed-read them. No. 2 pencils? Optional, and only for taking notes.

On Saturday, students in America took the newest version of the SAT, which was shorter, faster — and most notably, all online.

Some exams were briefly mired by technical glitches, but even so, test takers generally had positive views about the new format. They were especially relieved with the brevity of the exam — which dropped from three hours to a little over two hours — as well as the ability to set their own pace as they worked through the questions.

“It’s here to stay,” said Harvey Joiner, 17, a junior at Maynard H. Jackson High School in Atlanta, referring to the digital format. “Computers are what we’re more comfortable with.”

Given on paper for 98 years, the SAT was updated to reflect the experience of a generation raised in an era of higher anxiety, challenged attention spans and remote learning. The change comes as the College Board, which administers the test, and proponents of standardizing testing say that the exams still have a place in determining college acceptance and aptitude.

Disrupted by the pandemic and rocked by concerns that the tests favor high-income students, the SAT has had a shaky few years, with many colleges removing standardized tests as a requirement for admission. Some selective universities, including Brown, Yale, Dartmouth and M.I.T., have since reinstated the test, but at most schools, it has remained optional.

The current iteration of the test aims to drain some of the intimidation out of the process and evaluate modern students with tools to which they are more accustomed. The test has been trimmed, and students have been given more time for each question. The reading passages are much shorter, and an online graphing calculator is built into the application for the math section, which some see as a way to level the playing field for low-income students.

The tests also are harder to cheat on, with “adaptive” questions that become harder or easier, depending on a student’s performance. Students can bring their own laptops or tablets or use school-issued equipment, but cannot have any other application running in the background, and must take the test at a public test center with a proctor roaming the room.

Many students seemed to welcome this new format on Saturday. Naysa Srivastava, a 17-year-old who took the test in Chicago, found that the brevity of the reading passages and the built-in calculator better reflected her experience as an online learner. “Almost all my classes are digital,” she said.

Elijah McGlory, 18, a senior at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, said taking the test digitally was “way better” compared with the paper version. “I got more questions done online,” he said.

Sharen Pitts, a retired schoolteacher who has worked for four years as a proctor in and around Chicago, noticed several of her students echoing the sentiment after the test she oversaw on Saturday. But she added that some “preferred paper because digital was harder on the eyes.”

Ms. Pitts said that the main difference she noticed with the new format on Saturday was the shortened test time, which some teachers see as a negative change for students. Critics of the new SAT have said that the shorter exam and reading passages do not help students develop the greater reading stamina they need amid constant distractions from technology.

But the test’s speed was offset by a range of technical issues.

The start of the exam was set back at some test centers, as students had problems connecting to the Wi-Fi. Specifically, test takers at Oak Park River Forest and Georgia State University experienced 30- to 45-minute delays because of connectivity issues.

“It took a little while for everyone to get on the internet,” said Matthew Schmitt, a 16-year-old junior from the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. “But this is the first time they’re doing the digital SAT.”

On social media, students and parents reported other glitches, including math answers that seemed incorrect and frozen on-screen calculations. In New York, Lida Safa, 15, noticed technical issues such as one student needing a charger at her test center. And she brought her own calculator, just as a backstop in case the online one felt too unfamiliar.

This is not the first time test takers have encountered glitches on digital versions of standardized exams. In recent years, several high school students taking Advanced Placement tests online have had problems with functions like submitting their answers and logging in.

Priscilla Rodriguez, senior vice president of college readiness assessments at the College Board, said that “a vast majority of students” were able to complete the new SAT on Saturday.

“As with paper-and-pencil testing, individual student or test center issues are possible with digital testing,” Ms. Rodriguez said. She added that those who had problems with testing would be able to retake the exam if needed.

And students seemed not too bothered by the snags on Saturday. Naysa, in Chicago, regarded the bugs as an inevitable feature of any new system. And Danny Morrison, 16, who tested in Atlanta, said, “I think as they keep going, they’re going to get more efficient.”

Several also liked a function of the test that puts each student on an automatic timer, rather than leaving stop and start times up to the proctor.

“Before, it was your teacher that had to have all the timing right, and you had to wait for everyone to finish to go on breaks,” said Lora Paliakov, 16, of Atlanta.

Matthew, the 16-year-old in Chicago, noted that “you could work more at your own pace.” This, some found, made the whole testing experience less stressful.

Nerves, however, were another matter. Lida, the 15-year-old in New York who goes to the Razi School, a private Islamic institution, had taken the test on paper in December, and she had a good sense of what to expect. “But I didn’t know about this one,” she said, referring to the new format.

So she leaned on a few home remedies before going into the exam. A light breakfast. A trick she has used to calm her mind — counting her fingers by touching each one to her thumb in order. And a little prayer before opening her MacBook for the test that her math teacher had taught her.

“To be honest? It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” she said. “I feel like I probably did better this time.”

Dana Goldstein contributed reporting.



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