Computer-Based Testing for the SAT and ACT

Matt Larriva
Apr 14, 2018
Home » Blog » Computer-Based Testing for the SAT and ACT

In an increasingly paperless world, the makers of the SAT and ACT are taking steps toward offering their tests exclusively online. This week, the entire Junior class of Chisholm High School in Enid, Oklahoma, will be taking the SAT on Chromebooks instead of with paper and pencil1.

Digital Testing: What You Need to Know

While the electronic option remains a nascent option for some in the US, in 2018 it will become the only option for students abroad. This year, both the SAT and ACT will be offered solely through computers to those taking the test outside the States, signaling that the US adoption is not far off.

How Does Computer-Based SAT and ACT Testing Work?

When students test online, they generally use school-owned laptops, desktops, or Chromebooks. And to ensure that there are no crashes, slow-load times or lost answers (as has happened in previous years), both testing companies have created new requirements and protocols by which the tests must be administered.

The ACT test administrator, Pearson Assessment, now requires a system called proctor coaching.  Proctor coaching requires that “each testing location has its own local server, which downloads the test, delivers it to individual students and collects the answers before returning them to Pearson’s home server.”2  After the tests reach the Pearson server, they are deleted from the local computer.

The SAT’s administrator, AIR Assessment, uses an exclusive browser which has been designed to let schools know how many students they can support at once as well as the health of their network connection.  Furthermore, student’s answer sheets are saved on multiple servers, “so if the connection is disrupted students can log on elsewhere and pick up where they left off”2.

Understandably, these online testing systems are not yet error proof.  Digital testing for the SAT and ACT is still early in its wide-spread implementation, and these systems are continually being modified and improved. There are many obvious drawbacks and uncertainties, but there are also some real benefits.

Benefits of Computer-Based Testing

Some benefits that come with digital testing include lower costs associated with administering and taking tests, more accurate and immediate results, as well as improved security against cheating.  Stolen test booklets and answer sheets are a major concern for test administrators, especially “after major cheating scandals in the United States and abroad”, and digital testing could reduce that risk1.

Another cited benefit of going digital is adaptive testing.  Adaptive testing operates in much the same way as a puzzle or learning app on a smart phone.  The phone will bring up questions or types of questions that the user frequently misses to reinforce ideas promote learning.  Adaptive testing uses an opposite but similar principle: the test makes note of the types of questions you answer correctly and incorrectly then shows test questions that a user is more likely to get right.  The idea behind this kind of test is that it can “provide a more detailed picture of what students have mastered.”  It also means that “low scorers are asked fewer of the hardest questions and high scorers don’t need to waste as much time on easy ones”, just as a tutor might skip over beginning algebra and move on to practicing a more advanced topic if the student already has a thorough understanding of beginning algebra.  The goal is to get the most out of students’ time2.

Furthermore, adaptive online testing is already used by graduate exams (like the GRE and G.M.A.T.), language placement exams, licensing exams, and even sometimes in the Smarter Balanced test used for the Common Core2.

Even so, there are still several problems with digital testing for the SAT and ACT which prevent a more widespread adoption.

Difficulties and Drawbacks of Computer-Based Testing


Making sure there are enough laptops for every junior and senior to take the test on the same day is still a challenge.  The challenges become even more extreme in urban or underfunded areas as well as places where buildings and equipment are older or outdated.

For schools in urban districts challenges can include “how to give an online test to those likely to be in jail, juvenile detention, or a mental health facility”, especially when the number of students who fall into such a category can range from a few dozen to more than 100 on testing day and when some jails don’t allow inmates access to the internet1.

Technical Difficulties

Technical difficulties are more significant than just a longer buffering time on a YouTube video; they can have a significant impact on testing experience and performance, and there have been several cases to date of online testing implementation going poorly and students suffering as a result.

In South Carolina last year, the first statewide mandatory online ACT exam was “marred by technical difficulties, forcing some schools to administer makeup tests and delaying some score reports”.  ACT spokespersons blamed a nationwide outage beyond ACT’s control, but even so, the state encouraged districts to seek waivers this year which would allow them to take paper tests, and many did1.

Similarly, in 2013, Oklahoma debuted its statewide online testing to a host of issues including lack of equipment as well as power and network failures caused by old buildings.  As a result, these and other such cases of technical difficulties, many principals and school districts are currently opting out of digital testing.

The new proctor coaching system, mentioned above, has been designed to combat these issues, but, because this system is being implemented for the first time this year, its efficacy remains to be seen.

Score Drops

“When you change from one mode of test administration to another, scores typically drop — we know that for a fact,” said Mr. Tucker, who serves on a College Board advisory panel1, and while scores typically rebound later, that fact isn’t much help to current students, who have more than likely been practicing for the pencil and paper version of the test – sometimes for years.

Furthermore, some studies have shown that online testing can lead to an uneven distribution of score depression, affecting those who do not regularly use computers for school much more than those who do.  Both the ACT and SAT have been taking steps in recent years to minimize the effect that economic or social status has on test results, but unfortunately it seems that completely transferring to digital will exacerbate these score differences.

Score Comparability

Both tests are still in the process of making sure online test results are comparable to paper results.  Unlike a temporary score depression, test makers still need to make sure that students who take the test on paper do not have an inherent advantage over those who take it online – or vice versa.  This has required thorough studies of various factors, such as laptop scrolling speeds, screen loading times, and “fine-grained statistical comparisons of scores”1.  There have also been similar studies done to make sure that “computerized testing doesn’t work to the advantage of some groups of students over others”2.

What Does Computer-Based Testing Mean For Me?

Despite all these difficulties, testing companies are pushing every year to fix these issues moving them closer to the goal of 100% online SAT and ACT testing.  Students would do well to monitor how their local testing centers are proctoring the exam—paper or computer.

If you have already begun prep and have been practicing for the non-electronic exam, then you should ensure your test center offers the non-electronic form. If it does not, you may evaluate other local centers, as you are free to test anywhere you like.

On the other hand, if you are just beginning to prepare for your test, you should look to see what your school’s testing options are, and you should prepare in whatever way you are most likely going to take the test – getting used to the format in which you will take the test as early as possible is key.

If you still want to take the test on paper but your school has decided to opt for online testing, then you can only take the test on paper if you qualify for special accommodations due to a disability2.  Otherwise, you will either need to seek alternative testing locations or begin practicing for the online version of the test.

If you are taking the test online, then it is helpful to know that both tests do allow pencils and scratch paper.  You will also have the ability to bookmark items and return to them later.  There will also be a countdown clock to keep track of time left in the section. The ACT will let you cross off answers you want to eliminate and will automatically mark unanswered questions with an orange dot.  The SAT, on the other hand, will provide electronic scratch paper, allow you to highlight passages, and will also give you practice questions on the actual AIR test platform ahead of test day.2

If you would like to practice taking the SAT or ACT online, you can use the following resources:

1 (Moore, For the ACT and the SAT, Pencils No Longer Required, but Sometimes Necessary, 2018)

2 (Moore, Here’s What You Need to Know About Online Testing for the ACT and SAT, 2018)