Was the Digital PSAT Unfair?

October, 2023

On October 11, 2023, sophomores and juniors at Princeton High School spent their day taking the PSAT, with many juniors hoping to achieve the honor of National Merit Scholar. But there was one catch: it was digital. While this may not seem so bad at first, a further look into the inner workings of the digital PSAT and digital SAT reveals more than one first imagines.

Previously, the PSAT was made up of a total of 139 questions with two hours and 45 minutes of testing without breaks. On the other hand, the current DPSAT is made up of two 32-minute modules for reading and writing combined and two 35-minute math (calculator) modules, with one ten-minute break between the reading and math sections. This makes up for a total of 98 questions and two hours and 14 minutes of testing (excluding the break). Both standardized tests are still scored on the same 1520 scale. The difference? The DPSAT is adaptive.

The DPSAT being adaptive means that your score for your first reading module affects the type of questions you get for your second reading module, and the same for your math modules. It is still yet uncertain if your score for your overall reading section affects the type of first math module you get, though. Overall, the difficulty of your modules places students on different tiers to be eligible for certain scores on the PSAT. There are a multitude of problems with this. First, what if a student needs time to get into the test-taking mode and they improve as time goes on? Should they be penalized for this by no longer being eligible to reach a certain score? Of course not. Second, how can a test be standardized if people are no longer taking the same test? “Standardize” means to conform to a standard, or to make something consistent and comparable. How can we compare students that are answering entirely different questions?

Aside from this, this also creates a detrimental change to SAT studying. As we all experienced during the era of the COVID-19 pandemic and Zoom, being on the computer for hours on end is detrimental to our eyesight, attention spans, and mental health. Staring at a piece of paper for three hours was bad enough, but at least you could physically bubble, cross things out, and write annotations, which is helpful for the more hands-on learners. Now, not only do you have to focus on a computer screen for over 2 hours while taking the test, but you also have to include the hours of studying and practice tests you take beforehand, adding at least 2 hours a week to your already far-too-high screen time.

Still, despite its many weaknesses, there are definitely some advantages to the DPSAT. The reading questions have become much more straightforward and easier to understand. Instead of trying to decipher a dense historical or scientific passage, which can often be subjective and left up to interpretation, students are now more tested on their ability to comprehend the meaning of individually isolated paragraphs.

Overall, a standardized test is, ultimately, a standardized test, meaning whether students take it now or they wait until January to take the SAT, the tests will still be equally comparable. Furthermore, if students still wish to take a standardized test on paper after January 2024, the ACT is still available on paper. And, with many schools going test-optional, the SAT in college decision-making becomes less and less important each year, so remember to keep in mind that standardized tests will not be the final decision-maker and there are plenty of other things in your control to determine your future college.