by Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer from ArborBridge
While many still think of the ACT as a traditionally paper-based test, the computer-based version of the exam will eventually become the reality for students around the world. ACT introduced its computer-based test (CBT) to international students in 2018 and, despite postponing its U.S. rollout due to COVID-related disruptions this year, still plans to begin offering computer-based testing to U.S. students in the future.
As ACT continues to move deeper into the world of digital testing, a growing percentage of test-takers will sit for the CBT each year. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at what’s the same and what’s different between the paper-based and computer-based versions of the exam.
Paper vs. CBT: what’s the same?
The content and structure of the exam remain exactly the same whether you’re testing on paper or on a computer.
- the order of the sections (English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing)
- the content of each section
- the number of questions on each section
- the amount of time you have on each section
- the scoring system (section scores and a composite score on a 36-point scale)
Paper vs. CBT: what’s different?
Beyond the amount of time it takes for students to receive multiple-choice scores—typically at least 10 days for the paper test and only 2 business days for the CBT—the major difference between the two versions has to do with the test-taking experience itself.
Students taking the exam on paper can annotate and write out their work directly in the test booklet, bubbling in their answers by hand on a separate page. Working out of a physical test booklet also makes it easier for students to answer questions out of order, flipping back and forth between pages as needed.
Students taking the computer-based test will see one question per page, scroll up and down to read a passage, and click a “Next” button when they are ready to move on to the next question. This makes it more challenging for students to answer questions out of order or make quick guesses if they run out of time at the end of a section. Annotating on the screen is not possible, and students take notes and write out their work on a separate whiteboard provided to them at the test center.
Additionally, students taking the CBT have access to several on-screen tools:
- Highlighter (to highlight words and phrases while you read)
- Answer Eliminator (to cross out answer choices as you narrow down your options)
- Answer Masker (to hide the answer choices so you can predict the right answer before getting distracted by traps)
- Line Reader (to focus on a single line of text by blocking out surrounding lines)
- Magnifier (to enlarge part of a graph or image)
This means that in order to perform your best on test day, it’s important to understand how to adjust your test-taking strategies and make the most of the CBT tools.