Ins and Outs of New Digital SAT | Winward Academy


The Ins and Outs of the New Digital SAT

For nearly half a century, the SAT has been a cornerstone of the college admissions process. The upcoming shift from the paper-and-pencil version to a digital, adaptive SAT is one of the biggest changes to the test since its inception in 1926. The Class of 2025 will be the first U.S. students to experience both the PSAT and SAT in a digital, adaptive format. 

According to CollegeBoard (the maker of the SAT), this transformative shift towards digital testing on computers and tablets will streamline the testing process while maintaining rigorous testing standards and offering many benefits to students: adaptability, shorter test duration (36 fewer minutes in Reading/Writing and 10 fewer minutes in Math), and a modernized format to match changing educational needs. But families and teens are sure to have questions and concerns about the new adaptive scoring features, new digital interface, and the changes to what’s tested and how frequently.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the differences between the traditional paper-and-pencil SAT and the new dSAT, covering the following key aspects that will impact high school counselors and students. 

  1. Timeline for Implementation
  2. Exam Structure & Adaptive Scoring
  3. Changes to Content Tested
  4. New Digital Interface
  5. Updates for Students with Accommodations
  6. Response by ACT to these SAT changes

Timeline for Implementation

The College Board launched an international version of the digital SAT in March 2023, so international students already have experience with this new format. The transition to the U.S. starts in October 2023 with the PSAT in digital format and the new digital SAT making its U.S. debut on March 9, 2024. Similar to the pencil-and-paper SAT, the new dSAT will still be administered at a school or testing site. Students will not take this exam from home.

Below are a few more details about the administration of the new dSAT:

  • National testing dates remain as scheduled (for now).
  • Schools that administer the exams will get more flexibility for administration dates and makeups.
  • The exam will always be administered at school or a testing site. This exam is not to be taken at home. One benefit is students within the same testing location can begin the exam at different times.
  • Students can use their own laptops (Mac or PC), iPads, or school desktops, laptops, or Chromebooks. The Bluebook App software to take the exam must be installed in advance on this device. This ensures that when a student connects the app to the internet and starts a test that the app will download the questions to the testing device. This app also “locks down” the rest of the device, so students will not be able to open any other application on their computer while the Bluebook App is running.
  • Luckily, bandwidth requirements are minimal, so an internet connectivity issue should not disrupt a student’s ability to complete a test. The exam results can even be uploaded after the test is completed. 
  • With the new digital format, students receive their scores more quickly but will no longer be able to access their test questions after the exam administration.
  • The digital SAT structure introduces enhanced security measures and reduces traditional concerns of test compromise. Students testing together in the same room will encounter different versions of the test.

Exam Structure & Adaptive Scoring

The new dSAT is broken down into two sections:

  1. Reading and Writing – two modules, each with 27 questions in 32 minutes (total of 54 questions in 64 minutes for the Reading and Writing section)
  2. Math – two modules, each with 22 questions in 35 minutes (total of 44 questions in 70 minutes for the Math section)

All students take the dSAT in the same order: Reading & Writing Module 1, Reading & Writing Module 2, Break, Math Module 1, and Math Module 2. A student’s performance in the first module determines if the second module presents on average easier or on average harder questions (more about that in the Adaptive Scoring section below). This adaptive nature of the new dSAT is one of the most significant changes. Unlike the traditional SAT, the dSAT tailors its difficulty level based on a student’s performance. According to CollegeBoard, this feature aims to provide a more accurate assessment of a student’s abilities by presenting questions that align with their skill level. 

Exam Structure

OVERVIEWCurrent Paper SATNew Digital SATCurrent Paper ACT
FormatPencil & paperDigital only via the Bluebook appPencil & paper
Timing3 hours2 hours and 14 minutes2 hours and 55 minutes
StructureStatic – the exam does not change based on performance Adaptive – the difficulty of the second module adjusts to easier or harder depending on a student’s performance in the first moduleStatic – the exam does not change based on performance 
Test NavigationStudents can move through the questions in the printed booklet and mark ones for further reviewStudents can move through questions and use digital tools to mark ones for further reviewStudents can move through the questions in the printed booklet and mark ones for further review
Test Time Management ExperienceA human proctor writes start and end times on the board and gives 5 minute warnings before the end of each section. A countdown timer is not available.A computer timer is always available on the screen. Students also have the option to hide this timer if they prefer. The timer will automatically appear and count down in the last 5 minutes.A human proctor writes start and end times on the board and gives 5 minute warnings before the end of each section. A countdown timer is not available.
Student WorkStudents write in the provided test booklet.

Errors such as mis-bubbling can occur because students transfer their answers from the test booklet to a scantron.
Students write on provided scratch paper. 

Mis-bubbling is not possible because students only view one question at a time on the screen.
Students write in the provided test booklet.

Errors such as mis-bubbling can occur because students transfer their answers from the test booklet to a scantron.
Sections4 Sections, two for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and two for Math

Reading & Writing
Reading (65 minutes, 52 questions)
Writing (35 minutes, 44 questions)

No Calculator (25 minutes, 20 questions)
Calculator (55 minutes, 38 questions)
2 Sections, each with two modules

Reading & Writing
Combined Reading & Writing part 1 (32 minutes, 27 questions)
Combined Reading & Writing part 2  (32 minutes, 27 questions)

Math part 1 (35 minutes, 22 questions) 
Math part 2 (35 minutes, 22 questions)
4 Sections

English (45 minutes, 75 questions)
Math (60 minutes, 60 questions)
Reading (35 minutes, 40 questions)
Science (35 minutes, 40 questions)

Optional Essay (40 minutes, 1 writing sample)
Test Scores*400-1600 Total Score

200-800 Reading and Writing & 200-800 Math
400-1600 Total Score

200-800 Reading and Writing & 200-800 Math
1-36 Composite Score (rounding average of four test scores)

1-36 each test; English, Math, Reading, and Science
Score ReportsScores are available 2-3 weeks after the exam

Students can order Question-and-Answer Service to review the multiple-choice questions and answers for certain SAT administrations
Scores are available days after the exam

Students will not have access to the questions and answers after the digital SAT exam
Scores are available 2 weeks after the exam

Student can order Test Information Release (TIR) to receive a digital copy of the multiple-choice questions and answers for certain ACT administrations

* The College Board has indicated that scores from both the current and digital SAT will be considered equivalent. Colleges utilize an ACT/SAT Concordance to correlate SAT and ACT scores, and according to College Board, this same concordance will be valid for the new digital SAT.

Adaptive Scoring

During the dSAT, students will encounter different test versions right from the start. This is achieved by using a diverse range of questions to create individualized question sets for each student. Despite the varied questions, the topics remain consistent, ensuring fairness for all test-takers. 

Unlike the traditional SAT, the dSAT’s adaptive scoring system assigns different point values to questions based on their difficulty and which module they fall within. In the dSAT, the difficulty of questions adapts according to a student’s performance within the module. This adaptive scoring system, based on Item Response Theory (IRT), provides a nuanced understanding of a student’s abilities. 

To gain access to the more challenging second module (and the higher score it brings), students need to achieve a specific score in the first module. This “magic number” unlocks the potential for a higher overall score. See this chart below for an example pathway for a student from the first math module to the second math module, which is either on average easier (and gives a maximum math score of 600 points) or on average harder (and gives a maximum math score of 800 points).

The “magic number” to get to the more challenging second module is estimated as 13+ correct answers out of 22 in Math and 18+ correct answers out of 27 questions in Reading & Writing. Hitting this “magic number” in the first module opens the door to a higher overall score.

Changes to Content Tested

There are two types of modules for the dSAT – (1) Reading & Writing and (2) Math. We’ll next review the specific changes for content tested in each.

Reading & Writing

The dSAT’s Reading & Writing modules present a unique challenge. Short but complex passages, ranging from 25 to 150 words, require students to extract key information efficiently. This is in stark contrast to 11 questions alongside a long passage (600-700 words) on the current pencil-and-paper SAT. With passages spanning various disciplines – including humanities, literature, science, and even poetry – the dSAT aims to assess a broad range of skills. The key change is that instead of Reading and Writing/Language existing in two different sections, the questions are now intermingled, so students encounter both question types within one verbal module.

A few additional changes include the removal of the “Great Global Conversation” reading passage type, simplification of graphics-related questions for digital devices, exclusion of commonly confused words or idiomatic phrases in writing questions, and the elimination of the “No Change” option in writing questions. Strategic time management is vital for success, especially given the modular nature of the test. 

Current Paper SATNew Digital SATCurrent Paper ACT
TimingReading: 65 minutes
Writing & Language: 35 minutes
64 minutes, evenly divided between 2 stagesEnglish: 45 minutes
Reading: 35 minutes
Passage FormatReading: 5 long passages (600-700 words), each with 10-11 questions

Writing & Language: 4 long passages (500-700 words), each with 11 questions
54 passages & question sets

One short reading passage (25-150 words) per question
English: 5 medium-length passages (300-350 words), each with 15 questions

Reading: 4 long passages (~750 words), each with 10 questions
Reading OrganizationThe five Reading passages will most likely come in the same order and always from the same categories:
U.S. and world literature
History/social science
History/social studies
Reading questions are presented in the first half of each Reading and Writing stage and are organized by domain and then question type: 
Craft and Structure
Words in Context
Text Structure and Purpose
Cross-Text Connections
Info and Ideas
Central Ideas and Details
Command of Evidence (Textual or Quantitative)
The four Reading passages come in the same order from the same categories: 
Literary narrative or prose fiction
Social sciences
Natural sciences
Reading Question OrganizationChronological – questions roughly follow the order of the passageDifficulty increases within each question typeRandom
Writing/English OrganizationThe four passages will always represent the following topics (not necessarily in this order):
History/social studies
Writing questions are presented in the second half of each Reading and Writing stage and are organized by domain and then question type:
Standard English Conventions
Info and Ideas
Rhetorical Synthesis
The five passages are written to appear like the typical high school level writing

Topics range from history reports to personal narratives
Question OrganizationChronological – questions roughly follow the order of the passageDifficulty increases with each question typeChronological – questions roughly follow the order of the passage


The math modules on the dSAT emphasize real-world applications. The introduction of figures drawn to scale, real number variables, student-produced responses that can be negative, and access to a calculator on all questions are all new additions to the math section. Imaginary and complex numbers are no longer covered on the dSAT exam. The exam’s format for answering math questions, including the handling of fractions and decimals, requires precision. Each question is now a standalone discrete item: there are no question sets that reference common information. 

Current Paper SATNew Digital SATCurrent Paper ACT
Current Paper SATNew Digital SATCurrent Paper ACT
TimingMath – No Calculator: 25 minutes
Math – Calculator: 55 minutes
70 minutes, evenly divided between 2 modules60 minutes
Passage FormatNo Calculator: 20 questions with 15 multiple-choice followed by 5 grid-in questions

Calculator: 38 questions with 30 multiple-choice followed by 8 grid-in questions
44 questions: 33 multiple-choice questions intermixed with 11 student-produced response questions60 questions
OrganizationQuestions cover four domains:
  1. Heart of Algebra
  2. Passport to Advanced Math
  3. Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  4. Additional Topics in Math
Math domains have been renamed but the content has not changed from paper SAT: 
  1. Algebra
  2. Advanced Math
  3. Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  4. Geometry and Trigonometry
ACT organizes questions into 3 overlapping areas and 5 question types:
  1. Preparing for Higher Math
    1. Number & Quantity
    2. Algebra
    3. Functions
    4. Geometry
    5. Statistics and Probability
  2. Integrating Essential Skills
  3. Statistics & Probability
Question OrganizationDifficulty increases within each section and resets between multiple-choice and grid-insDifficulty increases within each stageDifficulty increases within the section
Calculator UseApproved calculators can be used on Math-Calculator Test onlyApproved calculators or the testing application’s built-in calculator can be used on all math questionsApproved calculators can be used on the Math Test only
ScienceThroughout the test, including in Reading and Writing passages, graphs are incorporated Reading, Writing, and Math questions expect students to interpret data tables and graphs35-minute separate section; 6 long passages with graphs and 40 questions

New Digital SAT Interface

The Bluebook App is at the heart of the new dSAT experience. Students will take their digital SAT through this application, which requires prior installation. The app provides a platform for both practice and the actual exam. It features tools like the grid-in response format and a built-in Desmos graphing calculator. Familiarity with these tools is essential for a smooth testing experience. A highlighter, answer eliminator, and question flag work in unison to enable students to track their progress and flag questions warranting further review. It’s crucial to note that while the highlighter serves as a valuable asset across the test, it is unavailable within the Math section.

To excel in the new digital format of the SAT, we recommend preparing in two distinct ways. 

  • First, students must practice their scratch paper strategy. On the dSAT, students are only allowed five sheets of scratch paper so they must be efficient. Example strategies include folding or drawing grids to keep work organized by question and module. Additionally, numbering questions along the way will allow students to circle back to questions quickly. 
  • Second, students need to practice with the Bluebook app and new online format. Students do not want to lose time navigating the app on test day, so taking practice exams in the digital format will be an integral part of an effective preparation strategy. In addition, students should pay extra attention to the four key features – the annotation tool, online reference sheets, the Desmos calculator, and the grid-in response format. Feeling confident about these features will ensure students are ready to perform at their best. 

Updates for Students with Accommodations

High school students and families should note that the digital SAT will maintain testing accommodations in its new digital, adaptive format. Some accommodations, such as large print, may no longer be required as digital screens can be adjusted by the user. However, other accommodations, like extended time or breaks, are still available. If digital accommodations are not feasible, students may be eligible for a 3-hour, non-adaptive paper-and-pencil based version of the dSAT.

Response by ACT to SAT’s dSAT Changes

Once families start to wrap their brains around the changes coming with the new digital SAT, the next question they always ask is, “What does this mean for the ACT?” Here are some key takeaways from the ACT as families consider which test is right for them.

  • ACT wants to continue to be viewed by families as the stable, reliable testing option for college admissions. The new digital SAT represents the third different SAT offered in only the past eight years. The ACT, however, has not made a major change in over 30 years. 
  • Executives at ACT recognize that the shorter testing length might appeal to stakeholders and are considering ways to shorten their test. However, they’re not open to cutting the Science section as one option.
  • ACT will continue to offer the optional essay writing section.
  • ACT will continue to consider section retesting options but has delayed that option since it was originally scheduled for launch in September 2020.
  • ACT is considering a shift to digital testing with adaptive scoring but has not made any decisions or announcements on that change.


The transition from the traditional paper-and-pencil SAT to the digital, adaptive SAT represents a monumental shift in standardized testing. High school counselors, teachers, families, and students alike should prepare for the changes ahead, including the adaptive format, the Bluebook App interface, and the nuanced question structures. By understanding the differences and adapting their strategies, all students can navigate the digital SAT with confidence, paving the way for success in their college admissions journey.

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About Winward Academy – Winward Academy is one of the world’s leading innovators in the online education space, providing web-based academic support that enhances students’ knowledge, confidence, and competitiveness in middle and high school academics and in college applications. We help thousands of students every year by providing personalized, comprehensive ACT and SAT test preparation and extensive math curriculum support. The Winward Academy learning platform honors over 40 years of education and cognitive psychology research, incorporating proven techniques that promote effective learning.

Winward Academy’s unmatched reputation is wholly attributable to our students’ exceptional success and to the trust earned among students, parents, and schools around the world.

Thomas O'Brien

Thomas O’Brien (Vice President of Success & Engagement) – Before joining Winward Academy, Mr. O’Brien was a nationally award-winning high school principal and math teacher. As an educator, he participated in the National Education Policy Fellowship through America Achieves. As a school leader, he participated in the Uncommon Schools Instructional Fellowship, the National Principal Academy Fellowship and Inclusive School Leadership Institute through the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Math For America School Leader Fellowship, and the Compass-in-Leadership Fellowship with Valor Collegiate Schools. Mr. O’Brien supports teachers and school leaders with ongoing data analyses, reports, intervention strategies, and engagement activities.