What Is SAT Adaptive Testing? How Does It Work?




The College Board has released a new, digital SAT. The College Board has said that one of the reasons it developed the digital SAT was to introduce adaptive testing. Adaptive testing allows exams to change in real time based on how well, or how poorly, a student is performing.

If adaptive testing is unfamiliar to you, don’t panic! We’re here to walk you through the ins and outs of adaptive testing so you’ll be fully prepared for the digital SAT. In this guide, we’ll cover: 

  • What the SAT adaptive test is
  • How adaptive testing works
  • How to create a test prep strategy for SAT adaptive testing
  • Three tips for preparing for adaptive testing

Let’s dive in!


The idea behind adaptive testing is that it evolves to match your skills based on the way you answer questions on earlier sections of the exam.


What Is Adaptive Testing? 

With adaptive testing, an exam’s difficulty is modified in real-time based on a student’s performance. Questions on later sections of the exam depend on a student’s performance on previous sections of the exam. Test questions get harder if a student does well, and test questions get easier if the student doesn’t do as well. 


Benefits of Adaptive Testing 

The purpose of adaptive testing is to more accurately measure students’ knowledge and abilities. By assessing each student’s ability based on their performance, the SATcan give students questions that are the right difficulty level for them. That will help the SAT assign scores that are better reflections of students’ actual abilities. 

The College Board has also decided to use adaptive testing to make the test more accessible. With adaptive testing, the digital SAT will be shorter, individualized to each student, and a better representation of each student’s college and career readiness. The College Board believes this will make the SAT more accessible for students and better mimic the assessments students will face in college and beyond. 


Drawbacks of Adaptive Testing

However, adaptive testing has drawbacks. If a student notices that their exam questions are getting easier rather than harder, they might think that they’re doing poorly on the exam and become more focused on how they’re performing than on doing their best. In general, the stress of not knowing how challenging the next part of the exam will be could increase test overall anxiety.

Students also have less flexibility in terms of how they progress through an adaptive exam. Many adaptive tests limit test takers’ ability to go back and change your answers on questions you aren’t sure about. Some will give students questions in stages, and they’ll have to complete all of the questions in that stage before moving on to the next one. This basically means that test takers don’t have the same amount of freedom to skip around and modify your answers on an adaptive exam. 




Let's take a look at the gears that make adaptive testing work.


How Does SAT Adaptive Testing Work?

So how does the digital SAT use adaptive testing? In simplest terms, the digital SAT assesses a student’s performance during the exam to give them harder or easier questions in the next module. If a student does well, their questions get harder. If a student doesn’t do so well, their questions get easier. 

To adapt each student’s exam, the digital SAT is divided into modules of test questions. Both SAT Reading and Writing and SAT Math consist of two modules: Module 1 and Module 2. 

On both exam sections, students answer all of the questions in Module 1 first. Module 1 is made up of a mix of easy, medium, and hard questions. Based on the student’s performance on Module 1 questions, the exam then assigns them one of the following second modules: a set of questions that are generally more difficult than the questions in Module 1, or a set of questions that are generally less difficult than the questions in Module 1. 

To help you get a handle on this new exam format, here’s a handy chart mapping out how adaptive testing works on the digital SAT: 


SAT Section
Content on Module 1
Content on Module 2
Section 1: SAT Reading and Writing
Students are given a broad mix of easy, medium, and hard questions. 
Students are given a targeted mix of questions of varying difficulties based on their performance in Module 1.
Section 2: SAT Math
Students are given a broad mix of easy, medium, and hard questions.  
Students are given a targeted mix of questions of varying difficulties based on their performance in Module 1.

How Does Adaptive Testing Affect Digital SAT Scoring? 

You’re probably wondering how adaptive testing affects exam scoring on the digital SAT. If you do well on Module 1 and get harder questions on Module 2, is there any advantage in terms of scoring? Do you lose points if you progress to an easier module? 

Scoring is more individualized on the digital SAT thanks to adaptive testing. Each exam question in each section is weighted differently in the scoring process. Students who perform well on Module 1 and are given a more difficult Module 2 can answer fewer questions correctly but earn higher scores. 

So what does this mean for you? Basically, getting more correct answers won’t necessarily mean that you’ll earn a higher score on the digital SAT. Getting more difficult questions correct is the way to a higher score on the digital SAT. 

As the digital SAT goes live throughout 2023 and 2024, we’ll learn more specifics about how adaptive testing will affect SAT scoring. We’ll update this article with new information as it becomes available! 





How Does SAT Adaptive Testing Impact Testing Strategy?

With the SAT switching to adaptive testing, students will need to adapt their test prep strategy too! This will involve preparing to navigate a new testing format and handling an exam that gets progressively more difficult

To study for the exam, students will need to use adaptive practice tests rather than the old, pencil and paper practice SATs previously provided by the College Board. Fortunately, the testing application students will use to take the exam, called Bluebook, provides practice adaptive SATs that students can incorporate into their test prep strategy. 

When taking practice tests, students should focus on getting familiar with the new module-based structure of the digital SAT. Since the modules must be completed separately, this may affect students’ pacing and timing during the exam. This means students need to adapt their testing strategies to the new module format of the SAT. 

With the paper-and-pencil SAT, you could only take on one section at a time. So once you finished the math section and moved onto the writing section, you couldn’t go back and adjust your answers from the math section. 

That’s true for the digital SAT as well. The module format prevents students from skipping around within an entire exam section to revisit questions or change answers. Students can’t access Module 2 questions until they submit Module 1 in a particular section, and they can’t go back to change their answers in Module 1 once they start Module 2. As students prep for the exam, they’ll need to get used to finalizing their test answers in each module before moving on. 

Finally, students need to prepare for the possibility of your SAT becoming more difficult from one module to the next. A good SAT study routine should focus on targeting question types and content that a student struggles with. The more mastery a student has of the toughest questions on the digital SAT, the more likely they are to get difficult questions right on the real exam…and maximize their score! 





3 Tips for Prepping for SAT Adaptive Testing

Now that you know a bit about adaptive testing, it’s time to think about how you’ll prep for the exam! Below, we’ve put together three tips for getting ready for the new, adaptive SAT. 


Tip 1: Take the PSAT

Starting in Fall 2023, the PSAT will also be an adaptive, digital exam. If you’re a junior in high school, you can take the PSAT/NMSQT to help you prepare for the digital SAT!

When you take the PSAT, you’ll be able to get a feel for how adaptive testing affects your exam performance and score. As you take the exam, pay attention to how the difficulty level of your exam questions changes from one module to the next. This will help you get used to the way that the SAT adapts to your performance during the exam!


Tip 2: Take Practice Adaptive Tests

Through its digital testing application, called Bluebook, the College Board offers four adaptive practice SATs (for free!). All you have to do is download and set up Bluebook on an approved digital device. Then you’ll be able to start practicing with adaptive testing! 

When you take more than one adaptive SAT, you can track patterns in your exam performance and tailor your test prep accordingly. For instance, say you take three practice adaptive SATs and are given easier questions on Module 2 of the Reading and Writing section each time. You’ll know you need to spend extra time studying the types of questions that you missed on Module 1!


Tip 3: Focus On Improving Your Academic Skills

The adaptive SAT measures your ability on different types of material. It’s a good idea to focus on building your knowledge and skill set when you study!

To do that, be sure to analyze your performance on practice tests and use what you learn to improve your abilities in your weaker areas. Put in some extra practice on questions and material that stump you, which will help you learn how to solve more difficult questions on future exams.

As you build your ability to answer more difficult questions, you’ll be better prepared for the adaptiveness of the digital SAT. Getting easy, medium, and difficult questions correct will set you up for a more difficult Module 2 on both exam sections. And getting more difficult questions correct translates to a higher score!





What’s Next

Now that you know all about how adaptive testing works, it’s time to learn about other changes to the digital SAT. Our experts break down everything you need to know about the new testing format in this article

The good news is that while the test format has changed, the digital SAT still tests many of the same skills as the paper-and-pencil test. Our ultimate guide to preparing for the SAT can help you figure out what you need to know for the exam and get your studying off on the right foot.

Taking digital SAT practice tests can be a good addition to your study plan. That way you can get to know the new exam format before test day.



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About the Author
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Ashley Robinson

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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