Is the SAT Computer-Based?

Matt Larriva
Jul 28, 2023
Home » Is the SAT Computer-Based?

Is the SAT on paper or a computer? Well, in an increasingly paperless world, the makers of the SAT and ACT are taking steps toward offering their tests exclusively online.

This week, the entire Junior class of Chisholm High School in Enid, Oklahoma, will be taking the SAT on Chromebooks instead of with paper and pencil.

Update: The SAT goes fully digital [2022]

Is the SAT computer-based? It is now. Following an announcement in January 2022, the CollegeBoard plans to move the SAT to a computer-based format by 2024. Read the full story:

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SAT Computer-Based Testing: What You Need to Know

While the electronic option remains a nascent option for some in the US, in 2018 it will become the only option for students abroad. This year, both the SAT and ACT will be offered solely through computers to those taking the test outside the States, signaling that the US adoption is not far off.

Now that the SAT is computer based , how does testing work?

When using a computer, SAT tests are given online to students. They will generally use school-owned laptops, desktops, or Chromebooks. Test companies use new requirements to ensure no slow-load times, crashes, or lost answers.

The ACT test administrator, Pearson Assessment, now requires a system called proctor coaching for ACT computer-based testing.  Proctor coaching requires that “each testing location has its own local server. The server downloads the test and delivers it to individual students. It then collects the answers before returning them to Pearson’s home server and deleting them from the local computer.

The SAT’s administrator, AIR Assessment, uses an exclusive browser designed to let schools know how many students they can support at once. Additionally, it reports the health of their network connection.  Furthermore, students’ answer sheets are saved on multiple servers. So, if the connection is disrupted students will log on elsewhere to pick up where they left off.

Understandably, these online testing systems are not yet error-proof.  Digital testing for the SAT and ACT is still early in its widespread implementation. The systems see constant modifications and improvements. There are many obvious drawbacks and uncertainties, but there are also some real benefits.

Benefits of Computer-Based Testing

Some benefits that come with digital testing include:

  • lower costs associated with administering and taking tests
  • more accurate and immediate results
  • as well as improved security against cheating

Stolen test booklets and answer sheets are a major concern for test administrators. Especially “after major cheating scandals in the United States and abroad”, and digital testing could reduce that risk.

Another cited benefit of going digital is adaptive testing.  Adaptive testing operates in much the same way as a puzzle or learning app on a smartphone.  The app brings up questions or types of questions that the user frequently misses to reinforce ideas that promote learning.

SAT – Adaptive Test & What It Means For You

Adaptive testing uses an opposite but similar principle.

The test makes note of the types of questions you answer correctly and incorrectly then shows test questions that a user is more likely to get right. 

The idea behind this kind of test is that it “provides a more detailed picture of what students have mastered.” 

It also means that “low scorers are asked fewer of the hardest questions and high scorers don’t need to waste as much time on easy ones.”

Just as a tutor might skip over beginning algebra and move on to a more advanced topic if the student already has a thorough understanding of beginning algebra.  The goal is to get the most out of students’ time.

Furthermore, adaptive online testing is already used in graduate exams (like the GRE and G.M.A.T.), language placement exams, licensing exams, and even sometimes in the Smarter Balanced test used for the Common Core2.

Even so, there are still several problems with digital testing for the SAT and ACT which prevent more widespread adoption making it a bit more difficult to answer whether the SAT is a computer adaptive test or not.

Difficulties and Drawbacks of Computer-Based SAT Testing

Accessibility

Making sure there are enough laptops for every student to take the test on the same day is a challenge.  The challenge becomes even more extreme in urban or underfunded areas. Places where buildings and equipment are older or outdated also face challenges.

For schools in some districts challenges include “how to give an online test to those likely to be in jail, juvenile detention, or a mental health facility”.

Especially when the number of students who fall into such a category can range from a few dozen to more than 100 on testing day. Not to mention that some jails don’t allow inmates access to the internet.

Technical Difficulties

Using a computer, SAT tests also have the potential to run into additional issues. For example, technical difficulties are more significant than just a longer buffering time on a YouTube video. They have a significant impact on testing experience and performance. Plus, there’s been several cases to date of online testing implementation going poorly and students suffering as a result.

In South Carolina, the first statewide mandatory online ACT exam was “marred by technical difficulties, forcing some schools to administer makeup tests and delaying some score reports”. 

ACT spokespersons blamed a nationwide outage beyond ACT’s control. But even so, the state encouraged districts to seek waivers this year that would allow them to take paper tests and many did.

Similarly, in 2013, Oklahoma debuted its statewide online testing to a host of issues. These included a lack of equipment as well as power and network failures caused by old buildings.  As a result, of these (and similar) technical difficulties, many principals and school districts are currently opting out of digital testing.

The new proctor coaching system combats these issues by design. But, because this system is being implemented for the first time this year, its efficacy remains to be seen.

SAT Score Drops

“When you change from one mode of test administration to another, scores typically drop — we know that for a fact,” said Mr. Tucker, who serves on a College Board advisory panel. While SAT scores typically rebound later, that fact isn’t much help to current students. They have more than likely been practicing for the pencil and paper version of the test – sometimes for years.

Furthermore, some studies have shown that online testing can lead to an uneven distribution of score depression. This affects those who do not regularly use computers for school much more than those who do. 

Both the ACT and SAT have been taking steps in recent years to minimize the effect that economic or social status has on test results, but unfortunately, it seems that completely transferring to digital will exacerbate these score differences.

Score Comparability

Both tests are still in the process of making sure online test results are comparable to paper results.  Unlike a temporary score depression, test makers still need to make sure that students who take the test on paper do not have an inherent advantage over those who take it online – or vice versa. 

This has required thorough studies of various factors, such as laptop scrolling speeds, screen loading times, and “fine-grained statistical comparisons of scores”1.  Similar studies work to make sure that “computerized testing doesn’t work to the advantage of some groups of students over others”.

act test dates and act score faq animation
SAT Test Dates and SAT Scores animation

What Does Computer-Based Testing Mean For Me?

Despite all these difficulties, testing companies are pushing every year to fix these issues moving them closer to the goal of 100% online SAT and ACT testing.  Students would do well to monitor how their local testing centers are proctoring the exam—paper or computer.

If you have already begun prep and have been practicing for the non-electronic exam, then you should ensure your test center offers the non-electronic form. If it does not, you may evaluate other local centers, as you are free to test anywhere you like.

On the other hand, if you are just beginning to prepare for your test, you should look to see what your school’s testing options are. Prepare in whatever way you are most likely going to take the test – getting used to the format in which you will take the test as early as possible is key.

Want to Take the SAT Test on Paper?

If you still want to take the test on paper but your school has decided to opt for online testing, then you can only take the test on paper if you qualify for special accommodations due to a disability. 

Otherwise, you will either need to seek alternative testing locations or begin practicing for the online version of the test.

If you are taking the SAT test online, it’s helpful to know that both tests allow pencils and scratch paper.  

You will also have the ability to bookmark items and return to them later. 

There will also be a countdown clock to keep track of time left in the section.

The ACT will let you cross off answers you want to eliminate and will automatically mark unanswered questions with an orange dot. 

The SAT, on the other hand, will provide electronic scratch paper, allow you to highlight passages, and will also give you practice questions on the actual AIR test platform ahead of test day.

If you would like to practice taking the SAT or ACT online, you can use the following resources:

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