Road Map for February: Freshmen

When I work with 9th graders, I focus mainly on exploration (of yourself, your interests, and college in a broad sense) rather than the application process.  However, there was some recent news about the SAT that will impact your class. The College Board is retiring the paper-and-pencil version of the SAT after the fall 2023 exams (sooner for international students) and introducing a digital SAT in the spring of 2024.

So what does this actually mean for students? First, it helps to understand how standardized testing works now.

Students generally take the PSAT in October of 11th grade. Around that time (or sometimes earlier) I recommend students take a practice ACT and compare scores. If the student is better at one of the tests, that’s the one they should take. The fall 2023 PSAT will be the new digital version, so students will be able to compare scores just like they do now. If you do better on the ACT, or if your scores are comparable and you prefer it, you can take the ACT and the change in the SAT won’t impact you at all.

Once students have figured out which test they’ll take, they can figure out their test dates and prep plan. While the PSAT is used to determine eligibility for a few scholarships, the scores don’t go to colleges, which means most students take their first “real” standardized test in the spring of 11th grade. A typical timeline is a first test in February, March or April, depending on which test the student is taking.  (The SAT is currently offered in March, but the digital exam may bring a new schedule; the College Board has only referred to “fall” and “spring” so far.) Additional tests can follow through the late spring, summer and fall, although I recommend students aim to finish before senior year starts, since they’ll be busy with applications then.

For some students, however, it may be helpful to start and perhaps finish testing even earlier. Students who have completed Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry by the end of 10th grade have the option to take the last paper-and-pencil exams in the fall of 2023, or the new digital exam in the spring of 2024. They also might be able to try both, and most colleges will let students choose which scores to report.

Why might this be a good idea? First, the pencil-and-paper test is a known quantity. Most tests are administered without glitches because administrators are experienced with it, while anything new has a higher chance of something going wrong. Second, there’s lots of prep material available for the current test, but materials for the new test may be limited when it’s first introduced. (We saw this when the content of the SAT changed in 2016.) Test prep companies will adjust, but it will take some time.  If you’re considering early testing, you’ll want to take your diagnostic SAT and ACT at the end of 10th grade rather than waiting until the fall of 11th.

On the other hand, there may be some positives in the new test. It will be shorter, so students who struggle to get through a long test might prefer it. While some students might be more comfortable with a paper-and-pencil exam, many are accustomed to doing academic work online, so the simple fact of the test being digital may not be an issue. And many students will not be ready on the earlier timeline and will benefit from additional math instruction during 11th grade in order to be well-prepared.

Fortunately you don’t have to do anything now. The Class of ’25 has lots of time to consider options as things shake out and more information becomes available, so stay tuned!