High school students will take the ACT college admissions exam by computer starting in the spring of 2015 -- but at least for a while, the paper and pencil version will be available, too.
"We are moving to a computer-based version, but for the foreseeable future, we will also have the paper and pencil test as an option for schools that don't have the technological capability," said Jon Erickson, the president of ACT's Education Division. "We will probably have the option for students to choose paper and pencil, as well. But all the anecdotal evidence is that students prefer the computer."
About 1.7 million students took the ACT in 2012, slightly more than took the SAT. The content of the ACT -- a four-part exam that assesses English, reading, math and science skills, with an optional writing test -- will be unchanged.
Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass., group that is critical of standardized testing, said the move to digital tests, long in the works, has hit some bumps in the last month, as many states turned to online tests to prepare for the Common Core State Standards requirement that students take such tests starting in 2014-15. In the last month, Indiana, Minnesota and Oklahoma have had problems with their online tests. On Monday, after reports of problems with the ACT online testing system used for high school end-of-course exams, the Kentucky Department of Education said it would move to paper tests for the rest of the school year.
"The experience of a number of states in the past couple weeks, where the system collapsed, should be a huge caution flag about whether the technology is ready for prime time," Mr. Schaeffer said. "It's good that ACT is taking their time about phasing in their computer-based test."
The computer-administered ACT will, for the first time, move beyond fill-in-the-bubble multiple-choice questions, with some optional items in which students perform virtual tasks to reach their answer. For example, Mr. Erickson said, one science question shows four beakers of chemicals, and lets students manipulate the items, pouring one beaker into another to monitor changes in density. Students might then be asked to predict the order of the layers if all four chemicals were poured into the same beaker. "We think these constructed-response items will allow students to get much more engaged and enthusiastic about what they're doing," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.