Should You Take the ACT Online?

UPDATE [MAY 2018] Check out ArborBridge's Guide to Computer-Based Testing: What We Know & What We Don't Know for the most up-to-date information on the computer-based ACT.

Students may or may not be aware that the ACT has officially begun administering computer-based exams to select schools that participate in State and District testing. The online option will become increasingly more available starting spring of 2016. But should you take it online? The answer is currently a resounding NO, if you can avoid it.

What does online testing look like? Well, just how it sounds! Test sites administering the ACT online will have laptops and/or desktops set up with the entire exam uploaded to each computer. Students go through each question and click their answers on the screen. To see a preview of how the test will look and learn how to navigate the online testing program, check out this video and this handout published by the ACT. You can also practice using the new testing interface through TestNav. The different usernames you can use to practice each section are below. All have the same password: PRACTICE.


ACT practice online


There are some benefits to the new online interface. Students can "bookmark" questions they may want to return to by simply clicking a button at the top of the screen. They will also be able to cross off answer choices they would like to eliminate by putting an "X" over them. Another handy tool is a countdown clock at the top of the screen so students can easily keep track of time. And when the section is done you can easily see blank answers highlighted with an orange dot, so you remember to go back and fill them in. For students with visual processing issues or dyslexia, there is now a "line masking tool" that you can turn on to grey out text except for the specific line you want to focus on in a passage. However, if your school offers the paper-based test, ArborBridge recommends sticking with it.

For a test that carries this much weight in the college application process, consistency is key. Most students take practice ACTs—not to mention exams in school—with pencil and paper. Paper testing has been the tried and true way for years and years. While ACT successfully conducted the first ever online administration back in April of 2014, students may not realize that taking a 4-hour exam online requires a new set of test-taking skills that they may not be fully prepared for. Recent studies have shown that on other exams, students don't perform as well on computer-based tests as they do on paper-based exams.

The biggest problem at this point is that students taking the ACT online will have limited ability to annotate the test. As noted, the new online interface allows you to bookmark questions you want to go back to and allows you to cross off answer choices. But the procedures surrounding other notations aren't clear. Can students annotate important lines in a reading passage? Can they work out math problems by hand and label geometric diagrams or will they have to do it all in their heads? Can they circle data points on a science graph? One ACT representative has said that students will not have scrap paper and should be able to make annotations on the screen. But the online practice interface doesn't allow for annotations. Other ACT representatives have said that students and parents need to speak directly with their schools or test site administrators to find out what tools will be available. Knowing what tools you will have so you can practice ahead of time is key to feeling comfortable and confident on test day.

For those students who have already registered to take the ACT online this spring, here are a few helpful tips:

Tip 1: Practice with TestNav.
Take some time before the real test to try out the online system so you know how to use the different buttons, select answers, and move through the sections. You'll feel more comfortable on test day.

Tip 2: Talk to your Site Administrator about available tools.
Find out if you will be given scrap paper to make annotations on or if other tools will be provided. Be sure to practice with whichever method you will see on test day.

Tip 3: Use the the Bookmark and Eliminator tools.
These built-in tools are the big benefit of the online test. Know how to turn them on and don't forget to use them on test day.

As of now, it is better for students to sit for the paper test than attempt the online test. However, this recommendation may or may not change within the next 5 years! ACT may eventually move entirely to computer-based testing, depending on the market demand for the print test. They may also make big strides in software development to alleviate online testing issues. By that time, we will hopefully have plenty of data and results to make any significant changes to ACT prep.

Megan Stubbendeck

About Megan Stubbendeck

Dr. Megan Stubbendeck is an eight-year veteran of the test prep industry with ten years of teaching experience. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Virginia, where she taught for three years in the History Department. She has been part of the test prep industry since 2007 and has earned perfect scores on the SAT, ACT, GRE, and multiple AP exams. As the CEO of ArborBridge, Megan oversees all aspects of ArborBridge operations and helped to create our innovative curriculum.

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