The ACT Goes Digital

Vice President, Career & College Readiness, ACT

Big news in standardized tests: the ACT will be offering a digital version of its exam starting in 2015. Why this change, and what does this mean for future test takers? Read on to find out—directly from an ACT insider.

It’s no secret that the world has gone digital. Smart phones are virtually standard equipment these days. Tablets are everywhere. Photos and video, once shared, can go viral in a matter of hours.

Yet within this technological world, high school students still sit down, #2 pencils in hand, to fill in the bubbles on test answer sheets, aiming to show their readiness for success in college. There is nothing wrong with that, necessarily. The paper-and-pencil format has worked well for a long time. But the advantages brought by ever-improving technology will someday change that scenario.

That someday is coming soon. We recently announced plans to begin offering a digital version of the ACT test starting in 2015. Initially, the computer-based version will be available only to schools that administer the ACT to all students on a school day as part of their state- or district-wide assessment programs.

By moving to a digital format, we are trying to make use of technology that students already use and understand and provide testing options that match how students learn.

We aren’t changing the curriculum-based content of the test, just adding another option for its administration. The digital ACT will cover the same subject areas, measure the same academic skills, and be scored on the same 1 to 36 scale as the paper-and-pencil version. It will still be administered under standard conditions and in a controlled environment, and colleges will still accept the ACT scores earned. The main difference will be that students will use a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer to record their answers.

Some of you may be thinking: “It’s about time.” Rest assured, computer-based administration of the ACT has been in the planning stages for quite a while. But it’s very important that we move thoughtfully and responsibly in its development to align the best possible experience for students with the same level of testing quality people have come to expect from ACT. That’s why we haven’t rushed into this new arena.

We are making this move because computer-based testing offers significant benefits. It can provide a better user experience for students, who often use touch screens and keyboards more often than pencils. It offers greater flexibility of questions, so the test can more effectively evolve over time to better reflect national and international standards. And, it allows for potentially faster reporting of score results.

Two common concerns about digital testing tend to be (1) will it be easier for students to cheat, and (2) how do you prevent technical problems?

Cheating is a factor that must be considered any time students sit down to take a test. Digital testing offers different—but not necessarily greater—concerns than paper-and-pencil testing. ACT is constantly working to improve its test security procedures and will continue to do so. Significant steps are being taken to protect the integrity of our test scores in the digital world, so students who do things the right way are not at a disadvantage to those who attempt to game the system.

Similarly, no testing format is immune from potential problems. Paper answer sheets can get damaged or lost in shipping. Power outages, utility breakdowns, and severe weather can cause test center cancellations, regardless of test format. There is always the chance that something can go wrong. With each new challenge, we learn, make adjustments, and improve.

Finally, it is important to note that paper-and-pencil testing is not going away any time soon; it will remain an option for ACT test takers as long as there is a demand for it.

Yes, the world has gone digital, and educational assessments are following suit. We at ACT look forward to the exciting changes as we advance to the future.

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