The ACT – Computer and Paper Tests

Available Versions of the ACT

The ACT has historically been a paper-and-pencil test exclusively, and this is still the way that the majority of students take the examination. However, ACT has begun rolling out a computerized version of the test. Plans to offer a computerized ACT were first announced in 2013, and after various delays, about 80,000 students in selected American school districts took the ACT via computer during the 2016-17 school year. School districts in the United States still have the option of offering the paper test, and as noted above, this remains the preferred method of testing. As of the fall of 2018, the ACT is available only in computerized format for test administrations held internationally (which is defined as anywhere outside of the United States or its territories).

About the ACT Computer Test

At the moment, the computerized ACT is simply a digital reproduction of the paper-and-pencil test. The content, timing, and structure of both tests are identical, but there are some helpful features that are unique to the computer test. It is possible for students to bookmark specific questions, and there are also screen magnifier, answer eliminator, and line reader tools. ACT plans to eventually transition to "computer-adaptive testing" (CAT) for its digital examinations. CAT involves instantaneous adjustment of next-question difficulty based on the answers to previous questions. A correct answer generates a question of higher difficulty, while an incorrect answer produces an easier question.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Computer Testing

For test administrators, computerized tests are easier to create, store, transport, and grade. If appropriate measures are taken to prevent hacking, computerized tests are also more secure. Today's computer-literate students may be more comfortable testing in front of a screen than filling in bubbles on an answer sheet. Computer-adaptive testing facilitates consistency across test administrations due to easier scoring adjustments for difficulty level. Computerized testing is not without its disadvantages. Because it is not possible to write on the test itself, students taking the current version of the computerized ACT cannot highlight words or sections of text, although they are allowed to take notes on scratch paper. Some students may find computerized question and answer navigation more challenging.

The Future of the ACT Paper Test

ACT's plan is to eliminate all paper tests internationally as of the 2018-19 testing year. As with many other standardized tests that have gone digital (such as the Graduate Record Examination), the computerized ACT will probably displace the paper ACT almost entirely at some point in the future. This process will take several years, and students currently at or approaching high school age in the United States will be more likely to take the test on paper.

The ACT Computer or Paper Test: Do I Have a Choice?

The short answer to this question is "probably not," at least for the immediate future. In the United States, the computer ACT is not available at test centers directly administered by the organization, and is only offered by school districts that have contracted with ACT to give the test in this format. This means that your school has made the computer-or-paper decision for you, and unless you want to go to the trouble of moving to an area that has your preferred form of testing, you'll have to go along with it. For international students, ACT now mandates computer testing only, which once again takes the choice out of students' hands. All testing locations that provide the computerized ACT must meet certain standards with respect to infrastructure, security, and staff training, and this is one factor that is currently preventing more widespread ACT computer test availability, both domestically and internationally.

The Computer ACT and International Test Center Availability

Some international test centers are not equipped to offer the computer ACT, either because they lack computer labs or because they fail to meet other ACT specifications. On its website, ACT has published a list of all test centers overseas that provide the new ACT computer test, which is the only version now available outside of the United States. The test center list may be downloaded as a PDF, and it is alphabetized by country, with test center names and cities included. International students taking the ACT should carefully review this list, and if necessary, make plans to travel to the nearest authorized test center, which may be in another city or even another country.