Beware the Computer-Based ACT Exam

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Computer-based testing (CBT) for ACT and SAT has been on the horizon for years. All over the country, ACT has convinced school districts to test drive the new CBT delivery method. It’s the same ACT test, but the CBT vehicle will make it feel different and more difficult. Our advice to students is to rely on paper-based tests as long as they have a choice. Based on reports from colleagues about their recent CBT experiences in other states, here are some important things for CBT test takers to be aware of.

The ACT has always been a fast-paced test in its paper & pencil format. Students often run out of time. The CBT version is even tougher to complete in the allotted times. It has the same number of questions and the same time limits, but students are required to do more work. In short, CBT adds an extra layer of pain for ACT students, especially those who strive for scores in the high 20s and 30s.

The ACT Math section still has 60 questions to answer in 60 minutes, but there is more work required on CBT because students must re-draw the figures given. On a paper test, they can just mark up the figures and diagrams on the printed page. Testing on a computer, students must transfer the same diagram to scratch paper (provided) before they mark it up to arrive at the correct answer. The extra work takes extra time on a section that’s already hard to finish.

On the paper test, students can see the reading passage at the same time as they read the questions and answer choices. It’s a race to find key words and/or data quickly in order to answer questions correctly. With CBT, they must scroll repeatedly to go back and forth between the passage and the related questions. That takes more time and effort than simply shifting the eyes to study an open test booklet. The same problem exists on the Science section at the end of the test. It takes lots of scrolling to bring hidden info onto the screen – info that’s easily visible in one glance on a paper test.

The English section seems to pose the fewest CBT challenges with timing and navigation. For Math, students really could use 70 minutes instead of 60 to get the extra work done. For Reading and Science, they need 40 minutes instead of 35 to compensate for the extra challenges of CBT.

Another problem is there can be an annoying time lag when students submit an answer on the computer. The gaps can be up to 10+ seconds each, depending on Wi-Fi traffic, internet speed and ACT’s server volume. When you multiply that seemingly small delay by 215 questions on the ACT, that adds up to many precious minutes of waiting for the screen to refresh. That wastes time and adds stress.

While the data are just starting to be gathered and analyzed, it appears that many higher-scoring students are getting significantly lower ACT scores with CBT, compared to paper tests. For students in the middle-20s and lower, the CBT scores have been trending closer to their ACT paper tests. More study is certainly needed.

We encourage students to take the ACT on national test dates using paper and pencil. We believe that paper-based testing will help students achieve their best results. Someday when ACT streamlines the CBT platform and they release many CBT practice tests to help students prepare themselves, the CBT vehicle may look like a better choice.

What Should CBT Test Takers Do Now?

  1. Go to your My.ACT account and use the online practice test offered there. Unfortunately, there is only one practice test available that reliably behaves like the actual ACT CBT platform. This is a big barrier going forward. Don’t expect other providers to give you the true ACT CBT look and feel. Even the CBT practice test used by ACT students outside the US (also available at uses different software than the newer US version.
  2. Use that CBT practice test to figure out which tools are important and which tools don’t help much.
  3. On the ACT Math practice test, get used to writing on scrap paper to copy the figures and do the math work to answer the questions.