As someone who largely works with international students, I wasn’t overjoyed when I heard that international SAT exams would be completely digital beginning in March 2023.

My head filled with memories from when the international ACT exam went digital in late 2018 and there were technological glitches, canceled or rescheduled exams, and a reduction of test sites. I wondered what this College Board announcement would mean for the students that I work with. While I won’t really know until the first student cohort experiences the digital SAT, I have identified some pros and cons.

Here are my thoughts on the relevant changes and what they mean:

More test dates – international locations will get two additional test dates per year. I hope that this means an end to my students feeling disenfranchised by having fewer opportunities to take the exam. It could also result in less expenditures as students will likely stop traveling abroad to try ‘one last time’ for a better score on a more convenient date. 

Test date flexibility – a digital exam is easier to administer and allows for more flexibility. While this sounds like a good thing, if school-based test centers decide to hold the exam during school (as the College Board is encouraging them to do), it would make it harder for students who are homeschooled or attend schools that are not test centers to register for and take an exam. In the end, it may be more limiting.

Students can use their own devices – laptops, tablets, or devices issued by the test center will also be allowed. I really want to like this. My reasoning is that allowing students to use their own devices seems easier than insisting that test centers provide them for everyone registered at their site. A student’s own device will be familiar and, ideally, they will have used Khan Academy’s free prep materials to gain familiarity with the new format ahead of time. However, students don’t always have access to a device and asking a test center to provide one, as required by College Board, is often easier in theory than in practice. 

A shorter exam – the test will be shortened from three hours to two hours and there is more time per question. This seems less stressful and College Board reported that a majority of test students found this to be true. That being said, College Board’s own research suggests that students who are stronger in a language other than English perform better on the reading sections of paper and pencil versions of the SAT. My non-native English-speakers might not benefit as much as others do with this change. 

A section-adaptive test – the better a student does on section one will determine the difficulty for section two. While this makes the exam dynamic and should limit cheating, it also means that the first section will decide how high a student can score. If a student is having an off day and doesn’t excel at that first section, they might never achieve the score they were aiming for. 

How am I advising current internationally based 10th graders?

Relax! A largely test-optional admission climate has given more control to students. Yes, a high score will almost certainly advantage a student, but if a student isn’t a strong test-taker they can focus their efforts on other areas of their application. 

Try it. I encourage students to prep and do their best. If low scores come back or are at a place where I doubt a student will ever hit a useful number, they can stop testing and move on to more important things, like getting strong grades and participating in fulfilling activities.

When to start. I work in a largely “last-minute” culture so while international students in other regions might be rushing to take a paper-based exam now, mine aren’t. Should they be? There is something to be said for going with the devil you know. If you think a paper-based test makes more sense for your students, have them prep now and take a paper-based exam this autumn. As with anything, it’s an individual decision.

College Board seems to have prepared for every eventuality during the international rollout of the digital SAT. With an 11-page “Digital SAT Irregularity Chart,” I hope that they—and our students—are ready for the new format. 

By Jennie Kent, MEd, CEP, IECA (Colombia)