Digital SATs will make international admissions fairer

A digitised form of America’s famous admissions exam will help level the playing field for university applicants across the world, says Cezar Wazen

February 19, 2023
Source: istock

As a university administrator, ensuring all applicants – regardless of their previous schooling or family background – are given fair and equal opportunities to show their potential has been one of my guiding principles. But the tools to assess students’ readiness have not always been optimal.

The task of fair admissions is even more complex at highly international institutions, such as Qatar University. Exam and grading systems vary by country, as do classroom practices, so creating a level playing field for student admissions is difficult, even as we seek to increase the international diversity of our classrooms. Finding a global gold standard for evaluating students has been long discussed, though academic standards is just one part of our thinking, which also includes the need for student accessibility and equity.

That is why I am optimistic about the new digital SAT. The test will replace paper-based testing and launch internationally in March and then in the US in early 2024. In theory, it will create a fairer, more rigorous and modern admissions testing experience for students, educators and administrators.

In some ways, the change is long overdue. Distance learning, which became widely accepted during the pandemic, has transformed the way students learn, and testing is often conducted both virtually and in the classroom. The old challenges associated with the paper-based testing, from shipping logistics to students bringing the proper No.2 pencils or correct calculators, will soon be consigned to history.

Going digital also means every student will be given a highly comparable, but unique, test form, making it practically impossible for students to cheat. As a result of the tighter exam security, there will likely be fewer test leaks, score delays and cancelled scores.

So far, the digital SAT has been taken by more than 50,000 students around the world and the consensus is that it’s less stressful, more relevant and a more positive experience. In fact, it was found that more than 80 per cent of students who had taken the written SAT prior to this reported a better experience with the digital SAT. It is also more efficient, convenient and accessible for test coordinators and educators. Test materials no longer require a great deal of paperwork, and scores are submitted digitally.

The test’s content is more globally and academically relevant. Many educational systems in international markets have different structures, grading systems and expectations for students. The digital SAT sets an international standard and ensures its content is both culturally relevant and easily accessible to native English speakers and English learners alike.

Longer reading passages with several questions have been replaced with streamlined texts with one question and cover a greater variety of topics and a broader range of international authors and titles. At Qatar University, we consider cultural sensitivities and language barriers in our admissions process and applaud the College Board’s efforts to include more culturally diverse and relevant content.

I am fortunate to be working at an institution that implements by action – not talk – diversity and inclusion throughout its programme and our interest in any assessment tool is for it to give us an idea of the level of the student we accept rather than to set a bar, or a threshold, for admission. For us, access is our No 1 priority, and we value the SAT for its ability to evaluate students and set a clear international benchmark.

But we must also be alert to potential pitfalls. Working closely with the US' College Board, we are seeking to ensure that the digital transformation does not leave any student behind due to a lack of access to technology. Since bandwidth varies widely from country to country, administrators have designed the platform to operate on the barest minimum level of connectivity and are working with fulfilment partners to help deliver laptops to anyone, or any school, that may be having trouble accessing the testing technology.

This will also save educators the headache of ensuring the security of thousands of paper tests from across the globe. The new digital SAT is not simply a digital version of the paper-and-pencil test. The test’s refresh also takes full advantage of what it means to deliver an assessment digitally. It integrates relevant test content for students of all backgrounds, has been designed to support modern learning styles, and provides more options for students on when and where to take the exam.

The conversion to digital is much more than a move to an electronic test. It’s an evolution towards a simpler, more inclusive structure that better meets the needs of students, educators and institutions today.

Continually retooling and improving the SAT will make it more relevant to and reflective of today’s students. Ultimately, it will go a long way in helping ensure their long-term success throughout the admissions process, at their university and ultimately in their future careers.

Cesar Wazen is director of the international affairs office at Qatar University.

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