The New Digital SAT and PSAT: An Interview with Mr. Atkins

by Daniel Chu ’25

Just in time for the start of the school year, the College Board has introduced the digital format of the PSAT and SAT, a change that is sure to affect students’ test-taking experience this fall.

Mr. Atkins, a personal counselor and Bellarmine’s SAT coordinator, is hopeful that the change from paper to digital will benefit students as a “more comfortable format as far as demonstrating knowledge.” Citing students’ familiarity with their devices and Surfaces, he expects that access to a keyboard, swiping, and other common behaviors with devices will help students be more relaxed in their test-taking environment.

Right now, the digital PSAT and SAT have not been thoroughly explored; while pilot versions have been tested internationally, it is hard to predict the impact on students. Changes in the format of the test include a shorter test, which will hopefully be less taxing on students’ stamina, and “more ownership involved,” especially allowing students to take unscheduled breaks. Mr. Atkins is not sure if the changes will benefit or hurt students taking these tests. 

Even the test’s structure and content could be daunting for students. Reading comprehension passages, commonly thought of as the most challenging section, will use shorter passages with one question per passage in comparison to the older format with longer passages and several questions. Mr. Atkins hypothesizes that this will allow students to “be more critical in [their] thinking at the time.”

More importantly, one of the biggest changes is the introduction of the Multistage Adaptive Testing Model, which changes the difficulty of the questions based on student performance. While the exact formula used to generate the modules is unclear, the difficulty of questions in Module 2 are based on the total number of correct and incorrect answers in Module 1. Module 2 will also have varying difficulties for different subsets: for example, a student who performs better in the Craft and Structure topic questions than Information and Ideas would likewise get harder questions on Craft and Structure in Module 2, and easier questions on Information and Ideas. However, Mr. Atkins describes it as a “right or wrong situation” in terms of accuracy on questions, emphasizing the fact that there is no penalty for guessing and encouraging students to answer all questions regardless. 

One of Mr. Atkins’s greatest concerns about the new module format is that students will second-guess their performance based on the difficulty of their questions in Module 2. He cautions students against overthinking the questions in Module 2 because “how you evaluate whether something is difficult or not” could be hard to tell, especially if a student is “on a roll,” in which case questions could seem easier than they actually are. 

However, there are obviously many ways for students to prepare themselves. Mr. Atkins heavily advises that everyone take at least one full practice test online, especially through Bluebook, to familiarize themselves with the format. Bluebook will also generate a score report and create a study guide, providing an easy way to review challenging concepts. He adds that even spending twenty minutes a day on areas of growth can help improve your score, such as using Khan Academy’s practice questions to study. In particular, the math section includes topics from algebra through trigonometry, so some students may need to review the topics or look ahead. 

Even during this period of change in standardized testing, the PSAT and SAT will continue to be strong resources for students to prepare for their futures. Bluebook helps students access the Connections and BigFuture app, which are both ways for students to connect with colleges. Through the PSAT in particular, students can access the National Merit Scholarship or review majors and universities, and the SAT can be a strong tool for college applications.

The National Merit Scholarship, a source of scholarships for students based on PSAT score, requires a specific score for students to qualify. This year, the cutoff for Semifinalists is a 221 out of a total 228 points possible in the state of California, making the Semifinalist status competitive and difficult to achieve.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

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Have you taken, or are going to take, a digital standardized test?

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