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Digital testing?

A look into the future of the SAT and ACT

Digital testing?

High schools are filled with students who compulsively check their phones for tweets and texts, so why are some of the most important tests they’ll ever take given on bubbled paper and use No. 2 pencils?

In part, because wholesale changes to the ACT and SAT take time. The companies behind these college entrance exams have to take into account concerns about security, access and the integrity of the results. So ACT made a splash this spring when it announced that it would offer a computer-based version of its flagship test starting in 2015.

The move seemed inevitable.

“It became clear to us some time ago that the ACT would be administered digitally as opposed to paper and pencil,” ACT spokesman Ed Colby says. 

The new format will be rolled out slowly. At first, it will be an option only in schools that require all 11th graders to take the exam. Right now this is the rule for schools in 12 states from Hawaii to North Carolina. Schools will be able to request the old-fashioned version too, since some students — and some schools — prefer No. 2 pencils and answer sheets.

“We don’t want to put anyone at a disadvantage,” Colby says. “The paper-and-pencil test will be available until there’s absolutely no demand for it.”

It may come as a surprise that teens, with their habit of staying digitally connected all day long, said in one survey that they would prefer to take college entrance exams on paper.

In March of 2013, Kaplan Test Prep surveyed about 400 students who took its SAT prep classes, asking them what they thought of the idea of a computer-based SAT. A whopping 81 percent of them said they’d rather have a paper-and-pencil test. They said they preferred the exam in its current format because they liked the idea of being able to write notes in the test booklet and read passages more easily.

Most of the students surveyed said they had taken computer-based tests before, notes 

Christine Brown, director of K-12 and college programs for Kaplan Test Prep.

“They have really, truly, grown up in a digital world,” Brown says.

While the College Board is in the process of redesigning the SAT, details have yet to be determined.

“As soon as we are convinced that we can responsibly introduce digital testing that does not disadvantage any student or group of students and can be managed in a reliable and effective way, we will do so,” College Board spokeswoman Leslie Sepuka says in an email.

Like now, students who take the ACT on a computer will answer multiple-choice questions. But they’ll answer each question one at a time — no more hunting on a separate answer sheet for the “B” that goes with question no. 12 from the science section.

Security measures will be in place to protect against fraud, but details still have to be determined.

“It will still be administered in a controlled environment,” Colby says. “It’s a test room with a

He says administering the ACT digitally makes it possible for students to get their scores faster, while now they can wait as long as eight weeks. Details about that still need to be decided, though.

Changes to the actual content of the exam, and how it is tested, might come in future years too. “Computer-based testing gives us a lot more options for the types of questions we can ask and how we can ask them,” Colby says.

Help students prepare

As more details of the new ACT format are released, share information about those changes with students and parents.

• You may have urged students to take a full-length practice ACT test on paper, since that’s how they take the actual exam. Once the test goes digital, encourage them to take a full-length practice exam on a computer to get used to the conditions of test day.

• Give students options for taking practice exams on paper and on a computer so they can choose the ACT format they like best.

• Stress to students that the exam will test them on the same content it does now: English, math, reading, science and an optional writing portion. They can do much of their prep for the ACT with software, tutoring, mobile apps or whichever methods they would use to get ready for a paper-and-pencil test.

Rebecca VanderMeulen has a degree in Journalism form American University.

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