Online, at-home ACT/SAT exams: insights from AP & grad-level testing

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As this year’s AP exams proved, administering online, at-home exams securely and effectively can be a challenge. Tech issues and cheating concerns plagued both the May AP exams and last week’s June make-up window.

It’s a puzzle the College Board and ACT are working to solve before at-home SAT and ACT exams become a reality. An online, at-home version of the ACT is expected to launch for US students in the fall/winter of this year. Meanwhile, the at-home SAT—originally planned for the fall if schools do not reopen—has been delayed due to concerns that not all students will have the necessary access to uninterrupted, video-quality internet. The challenges of AP testing may have confirmed that the College Board is not ready to handle at-home SAT administrations just yet. Even so, the College Board still plans to work toward a digital, at-home option for the future.

How are other at-home exams administered and proctored?

Here are the approaches to at-home administrations that testing organizations have considered or tried so far.

AP exams were unproctored. This year’s exams were open book and open note. There were no multiple-choice questions, and free-response questions were designed so that students would not earn points by looking up facts online or in textbooks. AP teachers received copies of their students’ work to look for inconsistencies, while the College Board also claimed to use a range of digital security tools, including plagiarism detection software. Of course, similarly unproctored SAT/ACT administrations would be implausible, since these exams are largely multiple-choice tests. And, despite the College Board’s efforts, some students admitted to cheating by collaborating with others during the unproctored AP exams. 

Other exams are live proctored. Students taking the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, TOEFL, ISEE are monitored by live proctors—through ProctorU, OnVUE, and Prometric—while they complete their exams. Students use their webcams to show proctors a 360-degree view of their testing environment, and proctors are able to view and control students’ screens during the exam.

Another option is automated proctoring, powered by AI. Artificial intelligence behavior monitoring has made automated proctoring a reality at some universities, and testing organizations may soon follow suit. An automated proctoring system can take a video recording of the student while tracking their activities and identifying any suspicious behavior, such as unusual eye movement patterns, key strokes, the use of prohibited devices, speech patterns, and additional people in the testing room. Video segments with potential exam violations are flagged for a human audit. Test administrators can also store these recordings for future reference if any questions about a student's score arise.

What does this mean for the SAT and ACT?

We’re still awaiting details, but so far, a few possibilities have been raised.

  • Live proctors for every exam. The College Board has acknowledged that an at-home SAT would require proctoring at a scale never before seen but has yet to provide further details. Meanwhile, ACT is looking at numerous options, including live proctoring every full-length exam with a webcam on each student for the duration of the test.
  • Provisional score reports verified by shorter, live-proctored exams. According to ACT, another option is to have students take a full-length exam without a proctor and then receive a “provisional score report” for that exam. To verify their provisional scores, students would take a shorter exam—around 20 minutes—which would be live proctored. However, it’s possible this approach may increase students’ testing anxiety without providing accurate verification of students’ skills.

The College Board’s statement about students needing 3 uninterrupted hours of video-quality internet suggests they are focusing on live proctoring the SAT in its entirety or perhaps considering an automated proctoring system—though neither the College Board nor ACT have commented specifically on the possibility of automated proctoring.

Time will tell whether the College Board and ACT can figure out how to securely administer online, at-home exams. Until then, stay tuned for updates as we find out more details.


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Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

About Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

As one of the highest-performing tutors in ArborBridge’s history, Erin coaches tutors and develops tools and trainings to disrupt old habits and empower new strengths. With a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University, Erin worked as a classroom teacher and student services director prior to joining ArborBridge in 2017. Her decade of success as an educator has prepared her to ensure that programs are tailored to individual students’ needs.

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