After two years of workplaces, classrooms, seminars, and, well, everything going online, the SAT announced a permanent move to becoming a digital-only test. The SAT is one of the main exams used to assess students’ readiness for college, and this change has raised a lot of questions for the millions of students who take this exam every year. But the SAT isn’t the first high-stakes test to be delivered digitally—in fact, we introduced the Duolingo English Test, the world’s first digital-first high-stakes exam, over five years ago! We’re here to share our expertise to answer some of your burning questions about what the move towards digital testing means for the test taker experience.


What is an adaptive test?

One of the major changes we’re seeing in the assessment industry is the move towards adaptive testing. This is one of the fundamental ways digital exams differ from their predecessors. Traditional high-stakes exams are usually “fixed form” meaning that each test taker in a session receives the same exam, with the same items.

By contrast, a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT) is just that — adaptive. As you move through the test, the questions and tasks you’re given are determined by your response to the previous items. The more items you respond to, the closer and closer the scoring algorithm gets to estimating your true proficiency. This means that tests can be much shorter, often hours shorter, than their fixed-form counterparts. CATs are nimble…


If a test is shorter, does that mean it’s easier?

One piece of the SAT news that made waves is that the test will be one hour shorter–but this is to be expected with adaptive testing! One of the reasons that traditional proficiency tests take so long is that they are fixed-form: the items you’re given are pre-determined before the exam begins, with no prior knowledge of your skill or proficiency.

By adapting to your responses in real time and meeting you at your skill level, computer adaptive tests can assess your ability far more efficiently, but no less accurately, than fixed-form exams.

Are digital tests as safe and secure as in-person tests?

It may surprise you to hear that there are many ways digital testing can be far more secure than in-person testing. Traditional paper-based tests are administered in person, at a test center or in a classroom. Usually, every student in a session is given the same exam. That means if one person leaks test items, an entire group of students can have their scores cancelled, and will need to take the test all over again.

Not so for adaptive exams—because each test form is uniquely assembled for each test taker, it’s much more difficult to leak answers. Administering exams online also opens up the possibility for far more comprehensive and secure test supervision: for example, Duolingo English Test proctors leverage human-in-the-loop AI to supervise one test session at a time, rather than entire groups of students at once.

A lot of people say digital testing is “more inclusive”—what does that mean?

While each testing company has their own approach to making their exams inclusive, it’s true that administering hours-long exams in person creates barriers for countless test takers with conditions that make it difficult to travel to, and sit for, traditional high-stakes exams.

Digital exams have the potential to be much more inclusive. Making exams shorter and removing the requirement to test in-person are just some of the ways we’ve done this at Duolingo. Though the SAT isn’t moving to an at-home administration quite yet, this development is a step in the right direction for more inclusive testing.

Testing needs to evolve

The transition of the SAT to eSAT reflects the evolution of assessment science and technology. While the eSAT isn’t yet a ‘digital-first’ exam like the Duolingo English Test—it’s not delivered on-demand, and must still be taken in-person—it’s still exciting to see more and more tests leveraging the power of AI to improve the test taker experience. Removing barriers to high-stakes exams means more students everywhere have the opportunity to test their best!