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In a first, U.S. students will take the SAT entirely online (no pencils required)

Efi Chalikopoulou for NPR

The SAT, a college admissions exam that for nearly a century was completed using paper and pencil, is now officially all-digital.

This week, students in the U.S. will begin taking the new SAT on their own devices — including a tablet or a laptop — or on school devices. The test is also one hour shorter (down from three hours), has shorter reading passages and uses digital tools, like a highlighter, a graphing calculator and a bookmark to go back to skipped questions.

The revamped test, which ditches the paper and pencil, aims to make cheating harder and grading easier.

Students will still take the exam at a test center or at a high school.

"Today's students, they do a lot of their living digitally, they do a lot of their learning digitally and they do a lot of their test taking digitally," says Priscilla Rodriguez, who oversees the SAT for the College Board, the organization behind the test.

She says in focus groups the College Board conducted, students said they felt more confident and more natural taking tests on a digital device. "They were kind of telling us in so many words, 'You're a little behind us at this point, actually. Can you please catch up?' "

A digital SAT isn't a big leap for many students

Throughout March and April, the College Board expects more than 1 million students to take the new digital SAT. Students can take the exam on Saturday test dates or during SAT School Days, where participating high schools offer the test to upperclassmen free of charge during the school day.

Stephany Perez, a high school junior from Houston, says the transition to online is "not that significant."

"We're so used to being on our laptops, like it's something we do on the regular, in every class."

Perez has been prepping for the online version in school, using test prep material from CollegeSpring, a nonprofit that partners with high school teachers.

She says she's still nervous and anxious for the test, because she feels a lot of pressure to do well. "It's a very important test," she says. "It dictates what's going to happen for your college life."

She's taking the test Tuesday morning at her high school using school laptops.

This isn't the first time the College Board has administered a digital exam. International students took a digital-only SAT in 2023, and a digital-only PSAT was given to younger U.S. high school students last fall.

Students will take the digital exam on Bluebook, an app that was built in-house by the College Board. Schools were given time ahead of testing dates to download the app onto their devices. Internet access is key to start the test, though Rodriquez says it requires very little bandwidth during the test and is designed to autosave locally, so students won't lose work or time if they lose their internet connection.

The SAT and ACT still hold power in admissions

All this comes as the relevance of the SAT and ACT, another college entrance exam, is being called into question in the college admissions process. More than 1,800 U.S. colleges are not requiring a test score for students applying to enroll in fall 2025, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. But in recent weeks, some elite private colleges, including Brown University and Dartmouth College, have reinstated the test requirement, saying it provides helpful context for the admissions process.

Perez would be the first in her family to go to college in the U.S. She says, "I know a lot of schools say that they're test optional," but when she looked up colleges she was interested in, she found they still listed average SAT scores on their websites.

"So you do have to care," she says, "because [colleges] might still be looking at them, even if they say they're test optional."

Even with many schools trying to de-emphasize the exams, Rodriquez, of the College Board, says the SAT can still be an important piece of a larger admissions puzzle.

"[The SAT] can give any student a way to show what they've learned in a standardized way, and that's especially important when other parts of the college application, things like extracurricular activities and essays, are more easily influenced by parental wealth."

The SAT and ACT are also still deeply ingrained in the American high school experience. Many states require one of the exams to graduate, and several states have contracts with the College Board to offer the test during the school day for free to their students.

Before this new digital format, the SAT had already gone through several changes. In 2014, the College Board revealed it would drop its penalty for wrong answers, make the essay portion optional and remove the obscure vocabulary section. And in early 2021, the organization announcedit would discontinue the optional essaycomponent of the SAT, as well as the subject tests in U.S. history, languages and math, among other topics.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.