Is It Better to Take ACT Test Online or On Paper? Key Differences & Our Recommendation

Posted on June 13th, 2024

In the realm of standardized testing, the choice between taking the ACT exam online (offered in some US test locations) or on paper is an important decision that can significantly impact test performance. 

As students prepare to demonstrate their academic abilities, it's essential to understand the key differences between the digital and paper formats to make an informed choice. 

In this article, we'll explore the nuances of both testing options and provide our recommendation to help students pick the right ACT format.

Let's dive in!

What is the ACT Paper Test?

The traditional ACT paper test has long been the standard format for administering the exam. Students receive a printed test booklet containing multiple-choice questions across four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. This familiar format allows students to work through the test at the required sectional timing, using pencil and paper to record their responses.

Understanding the Digital ACT Test

Recently, the ACT has introduced a digital format for administering the exam in the US (in certain locations only), offering students the option to take the test on a computer instead of using a paper booklet. While the digital ACT has been the only test format in use in Europe for some time, its introduction in the U.S. was met with mixed reviews. The prior digital platform was criticized for its clumsy interface and the need for excessive scrolling, leading many students to prefer the traditional paper format.

Let's explore the key differences between the formats.

Key Differences Between the Digital and Paper ACT Test

When considering whether to take the ACT exam digitally or on paper, it's crucial to understand the fundamental differences between the two formats. While both versions assess students' academic skills and knowledge, the delivery method and testing experience vary significantly. Let's delve into the key distinctions:

Testing Opportunities

The digital ACT offers more flexibility in terms of testing opportunities compared to its paper counterpart. With nine weekday test dates available within a two-week test window, students have greater flexibility to reschedule exams if needed. This provides added convenience for those with busy schedules or unexpected conflicts. In contrast, the paper ACT typically has one standard test date with a nine-day test window for accommodations. While this still allows for some flexibility, it may not offer as many options for rescheduling missed exams.

Testing Staff

Another notable difference between the digital and paper ACT is the involvement of testing staff. In the digital format, additional technical roles are introduced, including a technical coordinator alongside the test coordinator, room supervisors, and proctors. These roles are essential for ensuring the smooth administration of the digital exam and troubleshooting any technical issues that may arise during testing. In contrast, the paper ACT follows a more standardized staffing protocol without the need for specialized technical roles.

Questions Presentation

The presentation of questions also differs between the digital and paper ACT formats. In the digital exam, test sessions are set up by the test coordinator in PearsonAccessnext, a secure online platform used for test administration. Tests are then delivered to students electronically via TestNav, a digital testing interface. This digital delivery method allows for a streamlined testing experience, with students navigating through questions and submitting responses online. 

On the other hand, the paper ACT utilizes traditional printed test booklets for multiple-choice subtests, with separate booklets for optional sections like the writing test. This physical format may appeal to students who prefer a tangible test-taking experience or who are more comfortable working with pen and paper.

Each format has its advantages and considerations, and ultimately, the choice should align with individual preferences, testing needs, and comfort levels. However, we do have a preferred method and would like to share our recommendation.

Why We Recommend the Paper Format

While the digital format of the ACT exam offers certain conveniences and modern features, our recommendation at Shark Tutor LLC leans towards the traditional paper format for several reasons. Here's why:

1. Most Students Perform Better on the Paper Test

An overwhelming majority of students tend to perform better on the paper format of the ACT exam. This preference is often attributed to several factors. For example, paragraphs are generally easier to read on paper compared to a computer screen, leading to better comprehension and analysis of reading passages. 

Similarly, math problems are typically easier to solve on paper, as there is no need to transcribe them from the computer screen. The paper format eliminates the challenges associated with the "speed test" math section, where students may struggle to jot down calculations or copy tables or drawings onto scrap paper.

2. Lack of Online Prep Material for Digital Tests

One significant drawback of the digital ACT exam is the lack of comprehensive online prep materials specifically tailored to the digital format. While there are abundant resources available for the paper-based test, including practice tests, study guides, and ACT tutoring services, the same cannot be said for the digital format. As the digital format continues to evolve and undergo revisions, online prep materials may lag behind, leaving students without adequate resources to prepare effectively for the ACT exam.

3. Digital Format Still in Experimental Phase

Despite efforts to improve the digital testing experience, the digital format of the ACT exam remains in the experimental phase. Recent test administrations have seen the introduction of variations in question numbers and timing across sections, leading to inconsistencies in testing conditions. 

For example, some locations piloted a new form of the digital ACT with a different number of questions in certain sections and adjusted timing for all sections. This experimentation introduces uncertainty for students and may impact their performance on the exam.

Related: When Should You Take the ACT Exam as a Student-Athlete? The Perfect Schedule

Final Thoughts

In the debate between the digital and paper ACT formats, the choice ultimately comes down to personal preference and individual testing needs. While the digital format offers flexibility and modern convenience, the traditional paper test remains a trusted option for many students. As you prepare for the ACT exam, carefully consider your strengths, preferences, and available resources to make the best decision for your academic journey.

Ready to excel on the ACT exam? Our experienced tutors at Shark Tutor LLC are here to help you achieve your goals.

Get in Touch Now!

Contact us at (203) 249-9460, or [email protected] to learn more about our personalized tutoring services. Best of luck on your ACT journey!

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