It's no secret that SAT scores are determined before the test day. Their test prep, the SAT practice tests they attempt, and their test-taking strategies impact a student's performance on test day.

As an SAT tutor, you know that behind successful coaching lies an essential requirement: understanding the test. To prepare to help your students excel at the SAT, you must fully understand how the SAT is designed.

Here, we’ll discuss what goes into SAT question building, its design, structure, adaptive nature, patterns, difficulty levels, and more. 

Digital SAT structure

The digital SAT comprises four sections: two sections for Reading and Writing and two sections for Math. 

Further, each section for Reading and Writing has 27 questions—a total of 54 questions. On the other hand, each section for Math has 22 questions, making a total of 44 questions for Math. 

Thus, a student attempts at most 98 questions. In reality, however, the computer or device keeps ready 147 questions. We’ll soon see why.

Official SAT questions: Domain and skills

According to CollegeBoard, over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US alone accept SAT scores as one of their admissions criteria. Internationally, over 85 countries consider SAT scores when making admission-related decisions. 

Naturally, a lot of thinking goes into designing an SAT.

The SATs a student’s language and mathematical skills. Within both these areas, certain domains are assessed. 

Look at the screenshot below. Under the math modules, the official test assesses the student’s competence in algebra, advanced math, geometry and trigonometry, and more.

Screenshot: CollegeBoard

Within each domain, the student would find questions that evaluate different skills. For instance, a student could see questions on right triangles, trigonometry, circles, and so on under geometry and trigonometry.

The reading and writing modules assess and test students' ability to understand information and ideas, express ideas, use standard English conventions (screenshot below), and more. The modules assess and test different skills in each domain.

Screenshot: CollegeBoard

Look at the screenshot below from the official CollegeBoard Educator website. Although all four questions are related to geometry, they test different skills and are of different levels of difficulty. 

The first question with ID f7dbde16 is of a High difficulty level. It tests the student’s competence for lines, angles, and triangles. Against that, the next question with ID b0c5ece5 is a Low difficulty level and tests the skills of right triangles and trigonometry.

Screenshot: CollegeBoard

You'll see something similar in the reading and writing section: different domains, skills, and difficulty levels.

Adaptive nature of the digital SAT

The new digital SAT is unique because it is adaptive in nature. That means the test will adjust or adapt its module according to the student’s performance. 

The below diagram summarizes how the adaptive SAT works.

How the adaptive SAT works

The test's adaptive nature provides a more accurate evaluation of the student’s skills and knowledge and delivers a personalized experience.

What this means for the student:

Let's compare the experiences of two students, Debbie and Yuri. Debbie didn’t do well in Module 1, so her Module 2 was easier. She will end up with a relatively low score.

Against that, Yuri did quite well in Module 1, so he was served a more difficult Module 2. He will get a relatively high score, even if he got the same number of questions correct as Debbie in Module 2.

What this means for the test administration:

Before the student sits for the SAT, the testing app has no idea whether the student will need an easier Module 2 or a more difficult one. Put differently, the test doesn’t know if the student will perform like Debbie or Yuri.

So the test must keep both the problematic and easier modules ready. 

As you can see from the figure below, the test needs to keep a total of 147 questions ready. This is even though the student will see no more than 98 questions.

The Adaptive SAT needs 147 questions for each test

Accurate practice tests for the SAT

The SAT practice tests a student attempts during their test prep journey contribute significantly to what SAT score they receive.

There are thousands of SAT practice questions on the internet. So how difficult can it be to pick up a few questions from these free resources and ‘create a practice SAT’?

It’s a lot more complex than you can imagine.

Giving your students a bit of practice on a few questions is one thing; putting together a set of questions to make a full-length practice test that accurately resembles the SAT is quite another.

To fully understand why, you’ll need to return just a bit. 

Mock SAT Math questions

First, let’s look at the math section. The table below compares 5 questions from an actual SAT with 5 questions from a mock SAT designed by an inexperienced tutor.

Math: Questions from an actual SAT versus questions from an inaccurate mock SAT

The highlighted parts quickly tell you what's wrong with the mock practice SAT:

  1. The SAT is unlikely to have four consecutive questions from the same domain. The mock SAT here, in contrast, has four consecutive questions from the same domain (Algebra).
  2. An analysis of the actual SAT will tell you that the early math questions are either 'Easy' or 'Medium'. This difficulty level changes gradually from 'Easy' to 'Medium' and then to 'Hard'. Unlike that, the mock SAT fluctuates between 'Easy', 'Hard', and 'Medium' without a clear logic.

Mock SAT Reading and Writing questions

The Reading and Writing module in a practice mock SAT can also have similar errors. Check the table below:

Reading and Writing: Questions from an actual SAT versus questions from an inaccurate mock SAT

Here, too, the highlighted parts tell you why this mock SAT isn't reliable:

  1. The SAT typically has consecutive questions from the same domain ('Information and Ideas', in this example). You'll notice no such arrangement in the mock SAT, where the domains keep varying.
  2. The difficulty level of the actual SAT always progresses from 'Easy' to 'Medium' and then to 'Hard'. The mock SAT, as you can see, failed to maintain that. As a result, it goes from 'Medium' to 'Hard' to 'Easy' to 'Hard', which doesn't have a pattern.

Creating mock SATs that are truly reliable

Now you see: An accurate practice test needs to remain faithful to the official digital SAT, not just for one or two questions, but for all the 147 questions.

In the Reading and Writing module, for instance, you need to:

  • maintain the consistency of the domains you test, and
  • ensure that the difficulty levels don't change at random.

Even if you get just a few questions wrong regarding skills, difficulty level or domain, the SAT practice test will be faulty.

Remember, these observations are only from the Baseline sections; the Adaptive-Easy or Adaptive-Hard sections will need to follow such details even more closely.

This is why you should carefully choose your digital SAT prep test partner.

Offering the SAT practice test online: A few questions

What is the most realistic SAT practice test?

At Edison, we have prepared a practice test that's the most realistic SAT for practice ever. It matches domain, skills, question distribution, and difficulty levels for each question for the entire test. You can check out this blog to learn how we did it.

Are there free digital SAT practice tests?

Yes, we offer a free digital SAT practice test. You can take it here.

Is digital SAT easier than paper SAT?

There is no evidence that the digital version of the SAT is easier or more complex than the paper-based test. Besides, the College Board is focused on the best way to determine a student's skills, so they won't ever compromise their evaluation standards.

In any case, the digital SAT is replacing the paper version. Hence, this question is of little relevance now.

The importance of digital SAT practice tests

As a tutor, you aim to help more students get the best SAT scores possible.

But how do you reach more students?

Offer free practice tests for SAT:

  • Invite potential SAT takers to attempt a free digital SAT practice test.
  • Discuss their performance and point out the areas they need to work on.
  • Help them with a digital SAT prep plan and show where you can help them.

Sell the practice SATs:

  • Price the tests individually or in a set. 
  • Create plans for detailed in-person explanations of the tests.
  • Build a value-added offer where you bundle coaching with the tests.

With its unbeatable, highly accurate mock SATs built just like the real test, Edison can be a great partner for you. 

Why take a demo of how EdisonOS can help you sell your white-labelled tests?

Get your Test Prep (Digital SAT and PSAT) Training Platform Today

Mayank Batavia
Content Strategist
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