New SAT Math: An In-depth Look

Sep 24, 2023

If you plan to apply to universities in the United States – or certain institutions in Europe – one criterion for admission is a student’s SAT score.

The SAT has recently undergone a monumental change, shifting from a paper-and-pencil-based test to a computer-based, adaptive assessment. Currently, the paper-based test is still being administered to U.S. students; the digital model will commence administration at the beginning of 2024. For students taking the test outside of the United States, however, the SAT is, for the first time in its ninety-six year history, available solely in a digital format. 

In this article, we will explore this paradigm shift, examining the differences between the old and new format and outlining the changes to the Math portion of the test – while making some recommendations for certain refined testing strategies students can employ. For information on the Verbal section, check out our companion piece that tackles the more sweeping changes in that section of the digital exam.

A Very Brief History of the SAT

The SAT was first administered in 1926 and, since then, has been the most well-recognized standardized test for college admissions. In recent years, the test has become an optional part of the admissions process for many colleges and universities in the United States. However, a strong SAT score is still a powerful augmentation to the rest of a student’s admissions package and can be a difference maker for many university hopefuls. The SAT has gone through many different iterations over the years, but its most recent update is, perhaps, the most drastic shift that has ever been made for the test.

Big Changes

In January of 2022, the College Board – the company that develops and administers the SAT – announced the forthcoming shift into a digital adaptive format. A year later, the first pilot tests were administered to students internationally. The digital test is boasted to be “easier to take, easier to give, and more relevant.”  With a testing time of 2 hours and 14 minutes (64 combined minutes for the Reading and Writing modules, 70 combined minutes for the Math modules), the digital test has been trimmed considerably, with a testing time that is nearly one hour shorter than its paper counterpart

As mentioned, the revised SAT is an adaptive test. Both the Reading and Writing and Math sections start with a diagnostic module. Depending on a student’s score on this initial module, they will move on to either an easier or more difficult second module. If a student misses enough questions on the initial module, their potential section score will be at a lower ceiling, even if they answer every question correctly on the second (easier) module.

The digital structure lends itself to certain advantages for administration. First, students can bring their own devices to the testing center and use the same secure platform on which they take practice tests. Second, the College Board has been able to add two additional dates for international students, matching the seven dates offered for students in the U.S. Third, delivery of results will, in theory, be much faster, with students receiving their scores in a matter of days instead of two weeks; it is worth noting that, at the time of writing, no digital results have been returned to students in less than two weeks.

In addition to the sweeping structural changes, the introduction of the digital SAT ushers in noteworthy content shifts in both sections. While the most glaring of these changes can be seen in the Reading and Writing modules, the changes implemented to the Math section are not insignificant.

Relationship With The Calculator

The most substantive change employed on this iteration of the test is its relationship with the Calculator.

On the paper-and-pencil test, students are tasked with completing one of the two sections without the use of a calculator. This twenty-five minute “No Calculator” section requires relatively simple calculations but necessitates deeper knowledge of mathematical concepts and benefits a systematic logical approach. On the dSAT, students are able to use a calculator on every math question.

In addition to continuing to allow students to use a personal calculator (from the list of accepted devices), the digital test includes a built-in graphing calculator from Desmos Studios. This is an exceptionally powerful tool for SAT test takers, and can help ensure accuracy and speed on a variety of questions. In the paper version of the test, students are shrewd to not over-rely on their calculators; for the digital exam however, the Desmos calculator can be the quickest and most direct way to solve certain problems.

A good example of this difference can be found in algebra questions that test knowledge of quadratics. On the paper-and pencil test, these questions tend to require that students have a deep understanding of the fundamentals of parabolas and often obligate them to follow a series of steps to calculate a correct answer.

Two examples (14 and 19) are below:

Although these types of problems are still well-represented on the digital test, many questions now require more complex calculations with an arguably more straightforward approach.

Take this digital question (8), for instance:

While simple factoring of the expression would be difficult, and the use of the quadratic formula a bit unwieldy, plugging the expanded form of the expression into Desmos yields a quick and simple answer:

Moreover, quadratics are not the only question category aided by the Desmos. Many linear, exponential, and circle equation questions can be comfortably solved on this platform.

Some students may still feel most confident using their own calculators on the digital test, and that is fine! Regardless, we strongly recommend they spend some time getting acquainted with the built-in Desmos platform. Once students are familiar with its features, it is a tool that can prove indispensable. If you or your student want to start practicing, a browser version of the Desmos graphing calculator can be accessed here.

Increased Computational Difficulty 

As mentioned above, certain questions on the digital test carry a higher level of computational difficulty than similar questions on the paper-based exam.

Although both of the following questions cover the same concept (the surface area of a cube) the way these problems are structured showcase the sometimes subtle logical differences between the tests.

The first question (26) is from the paper test and requires students to – in order to eventually find a side’s perimeter – determine the side length of a cube in terms of an unknown constant. While the computation necessary to solve the question can be easily completed without a calculator, the presence of the letter “a” may confuse some students who would otherwise know how to find the answer.

On the other hand, digital test question 10 (below) does not introduce any extra algebraic complications, but the computation necessary is too difficult for most students to quickly complete without a calculator.

Both of the above logical models appear in questions on the digital test, but computation as difficult as that in question 10 is quite rare on the paper-based exam.

Adjusted Content Percentages

In terms of content, the digital SAT does not break any new ground. All of the question categories represented on the digital test – Algebra, Advanced Math, Problem Solving/Data Analysis, and Geometry/Trigonometry – appear on the paper-based test as well. What is different is the distribution of material.

The figures below show the percentage changes between the paper and digital format:

The most glaring takeaway from this data is the steep decrease in Data Representation questions on the digital SAT. Whereas questions that require analysis of charts and graphs are common elements of the “Calculator” section on the paper test, that category of questions appears much more sparingly on the digital SAT.

Conversely, questions that cover key Geometry and Trigonometry concepts: triangles, right triangles, quadrilaterals, composite shapes, and circles, appear with significantly greater frequency on the digital exam.

Changes with Student-Produced Responses

One of the more recognizable features of the SAT is the Student-Produced Response (SPR) questions. For these questions, students are not provided multiple answer choices but, instead, must enter their own responses. SPR questions remain on the digital exam and follow many of the same rules as before: 

  • No special symbols (such as % , or $) can be used
  • No mixed numbers can be entered
  • Students must use all spaces provided for decimals
  • Some questions have multiple correct answers (although students must only enter one)

There are some changes, however: 

  • All answers on the paper test are positive or zero; answers on the digital test, however, can be negative.
  • On the paper test, answers can be no more than four characters. On the digital test, students can enter up to five characters for a positive answer or six characters for a negative answer.
  • The number and placement of SPR questions is predictable on the paper exam: there are a total of thirteen SPR questions on each test, and these questions always appear at the end of each section. On the digital exam, students see between ten and twelve SPR questions (based on the data from the released full-length adaptive practice tests), and they are spread throughout each module.
  • The percentage of SPR questions on the digital test is greater, however, accounting for between 23 percent and 27 percent of total questions over both modules, whereas SPR questions account for 22 percent of questions on the paper-based SAT math sections.

Order of Difficulty and Scoring Changes

As with the paper-based exam, questions on the math modules on the digital SAT do not, officially, have an order of difficulty. That being said, multiple-choice questions towards the end of the paper-based sections tend to be more complex than those near the beginning. By the same token, the last several questions of the digital math modules are markedly more complicated than questions that appear earlier in the test. Students should prepare for more time-consuming questions in the back half of each module and manage their pacing accordingly.

Although each particular administration of the paper-based SAT is scored on a singular curve, each question is worth the same number of points. This is not the case with the digital exam. Certain questions are weighted more heavily than others on the updated test. That being said, there has not been further clarity from the College Board (the company that develops and administers the SAT) whether there is a repeatable standard by which questions are weighted. Therefore, students should treat each question with the same level of importance.

In addition to a more unpredictable scoring pattern, the digital test also contains several “experimental questions.” These questions are used as research by the test makers and will not be scored. Students should not try to predict which questions are experimental, as these questions are designed to be indistinguishable from the rest. Instead, the presence of unscored experimental questions should be a reminder to students not to get too caught up in trying to solve one question or to lose resolve if they are faced with something impenetrable – there is a chance that the question will not factor into their score.

The Takeaways and Next Steps

In its revised format, the digital SAT carries distinct advantages: shorter administration, greater operational flexibility, and a format preferred by many students. With a more robust understanding of the test structure and a systematic but nimble approach, students taking the digital SAT can be empowered to make this test a key to open doors for them in the admissions process. We suggest that students begin by taking the first free digital practice test available through the College Board website (save the other tests for later!) to get a more hands-on idea of the format and questions. 

Onsen program managers are available to help decipher these practice test results and build a personalized plan for SAT preparation. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for further information.

We wish you the best of luck on your college admissions journey!

Written by

Zachary Adler
Author Image Since 2010, Zach has been helping students achieve their college readiness goals, specializing in all sections of the SAT, ACT, PSAT, and SHSAT. Prior to joining Onsen, Zach worked for a global investment firm, as well as in various roles in the education space. He has served as a youth mentor and has run college readiness information sessions for students in under-resourced communities. Additionally, Zach is a writer and filmmaker. He is an International Baccalaureate scholar and a graduate of Boston University.

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