Digital ACT versus Paper ACT

If you and your school are considering switching to or have already changed to the digital ACT, let me offer some recommendations.

As an instructor for the ACT’s Instructional Mastery program, I have taken and administered digital ACT tests to other teachers nationwide in all subject areas. While some could adapt, the majority struggled. Collaborating with other tutors across the country, I have found that this struggle impacts students, too. School districts across the country have moved to the digital ACT and have seen Reading and Science scores (the most impacted by the digital experience) drop. Students may give positive reviews because the online experience can feel comfortable, but that comfort does not translate to better performances.

The ACT disagrees as a 2020 study by ACT concluded that online testing had no major score impact compared to paper testing and very slightly benefitted online testing. However, the study showed that the online test had fewer questions left blank, attributed to the digital timer and the prompting before submitting the online test. This impacted 6.8 – 15.9% of the submitted tests, depending on the subject and testing mode. In all four subject areas, more paper testers had blank test items than online testers from +2.5% to +3.6%. The study even conceded that merely having fewer blanks “partly explains why paper examinees exhibited lower item proportions correct.” While avoiding blank answers is a way to improve scores, it fails to isolate whether the testing mode impacts the accuracy of the test or shows the same slight score improvement among students who don’t have blanks.

Isolating tests with blank test items is merely one of the variables not controlled. The ACT study also did not control for test prep or prior test experience. The tests were conducted on October, February, and December national test dates, which would precede most in-school test prep programs. As demonstrated in the table below, there are many more testing strategies for the paper test that the digital test hinders or prevents.

However, even if the students had digital test prep, the ACT has inconsistent digital testing applications. The study acknowledged that “test scores from different online testing platforms might exhibit different mode effects,” so they conducted the test using the TAO system. However, students prepping for the test may not have a consistent experience as there are three testing platforms they could encounter:

  • CloudAtlas: International Online Mock ACT (the first result with searching “practice digital ACT” or its variations)
  • TAO: National test day platform, mock online ACT on the my.ACT dashboard, ACT Official Guide online practice tests
  • TestNav: State/District testing platform.

The differences can be minor, like the placement of the testing tools, or major, such as TestNav having a built-in Desmos graphing calculator while CloudAtlas and TAO only have a scientific calculator.

While the shift towards digital ACT testing may seem like a natural progression in our tech-centric world, it's essential to weigh the pros and cons. The inconsistencies in digital testing platforms, combined with the potential pitfalls in the ACT's own studies, suggest that the transition might not be as seamless as hoped. While digital platforms offer certain conveniences, they also introduce new variables that can affect a student's performance. It's crucial for educators, students, and parents to be aware of these nuances and prepare accordingly. As we move forward, it's our collective responsibility to ensure that the mode of testing does not overshadow the primary goal: accurately assessing a student's knowledge and readiness for college.

Digital ACT
Timer- Digital timer for exact time keeping.

- Can mask the timer if needed. (only national online test, not district testing)
Digital timer can cause anxiety and mental paralysis.
Tools- The tools like Answer Eliminator and Answer Masking can be useful for some students.

- Using Ctrl plus + to zoom would work better than the magnifier.
- Tools like The Line Reader, Magnifying Glass, and Masking have little to no use and can result in wasted time of students “playing” with the tools.
Highlighter- Highlighting text feature stands out more than underlining with a pencil.- The highlights disappear when going to the next question. This makes reading and annotating a passage meaningless, which is a massive disadvantage.

- For the district online test, the highlighting is hidden and requires extra click per highlight.
Questions Navigator- Questions are marked as “seen” and can be flagged, giving them tools to revisit difficult questions.

- Also, students are prompted if questions are left unanswered, which can help prevent students from leaving questions blank.
- Question reloading can be time consuming and frustrating if attempting to scan all the questions in a passage like in reading or science.

- Reloading questions doesn’t count down the time and can be used to manipulate the clock (National online test).

- Students can’t see all Reading or Science questions simultaneously removing some testing strategies.

- Passages don’t have a delineation, so jumping passages becomes inefficient.
EnglishThe line(s) or words the question is referring to will be highlighted.- The sans serif font in the digital test has smaller punctuation marks and the underline distance is closer to the punctuation, making it almost blend.

Math- Math does have a built-in scientific calculator, so students who forget a calculator can still have calculator access.- Students cannot draw on figures and would have to redraw what is on the screen.

- Looking up to the screen and down to scratch paper is taxing and can create more errors.

- The district and national online tests have very different calculator tools.
Reading- No more counting lines between 30 and 35 to find line 33 the question is referencing. Now line and paragraph references are highlighted.

- The Crtl plus + to zoom can make the font larger for those with poor eyesight.
- Reading with the highlighter tool is very helpful; however, the highlights disappear when going to the next question, making highlighting effectively useless.

- Many reading strategies such as pre-reading the questions for key words and completing line/paragraph reference questions first are render ineffective due to the questions only being presented one at a time and time consuming to scan through.

- Reading the passage requires scrolling, which adds to the reading time as students reset their eyes and find the line where they left off.

- Scrolling up and down a passage while scanning for an answer is significantly more challenging.
Science- Highlighting values or key word can be helpful and isn’t hindered as much by highlights disappearing like with the reading test.- Graphs (unlike tables) are images and cannot be annotated.

- It is a common strategy to identify/complete the Conflicting Viewpoints (CV) passage out of order. Because science passages have 6 or 7 questions, it isn’t possible to know the starting point of each passage. This makes scanning for the CV passages more time consuming.

- Many questions require students to cross reference multiple tables and graphs. This is difficult enough and made harder when a student needs to retain a value and scroll down to the corresponding graph.

Comments are closed.