The future of standardized testing will undoubtedly be digital. Less certain is when a computer- or device-based format will be distributed evenly across all assessments. Right now, many of the most popular graduate entrance exams such as the GMAT, GRE, or, most recently, LSAT have migrated to digital platforms. Certain high school entrance exams also appear in a computer-based format. But the biggest tests of all–the SAT and ACT–haven’t made the jump yet, at least not everywhere.
Our March 2021 Tests and the Rest Online Summit focused on both the present state of Computer-Based Testing (CBT) and what the future might hold. What questions should we be asking (and demanding wise, equitable answers) about the inevitable digital SAT and ACT?
ACT not only anticipated widespread digital testing starting in September 2020, but predicted the exciting option of individual section retesting. College Board teased an at-home SAT option a month into the global pandemic but dropped the idea like a hot potato when colleges preemptively scoffed at the value of such scores without more data. Nonetheless, early 2021 brought a more concrete commitment to the abstract idea of a digital SAT. That said, neither organization suggested that widely distributed computer-based college admissions testing will occur any sooner than 2022. So when will it happen?
When the GMAT and GRE went digital, the tests converted to an adaptive format that substantially altered essential components of the testing experience. The LSAT, on the other hand, remained exactly the same in its analog to digital transition. Like the LSAT, CBT versions of the our beloved college tests currently copy the paper and pencil formats. However, most people I observe as an ACT Certified Educator trainer require more time per question on online ACTs than paper ones, so some aspects of the exams may warrant alteration. What will the final digital forms of the SAT and ACT look like?
While teens in most parts of the United States cannot take a CBT SAT or ACT even if they wanted to, those in certain districts have no or little choice in the matter. And my colleague Sonya Muthalia of Informed Decisions reports that aspiring American college students in India and throughout the world almost uniformly take digital SATs and ACTs. Unfortunately, different iterations of the digital ACT vary widely in terms of testing tools and QOL features. How will the final digital forms of the SAT and ACT be delivered?
The testing platform ACT and College Board ultimately adopt matters less than the hardware and location test takers will employ to access their online exams. ACT’s initial ambition may have involved schools and districts across the country hosting tests on specific dates just as they currently do, but with a lot more tech support. However, the capacity of school-based testing would probably necessitate a wider–or perhaps even rolling–testing window. Currently, a wide array of digital assessments can be taken at computer testing centers across the country, so that infrastructure may be available; sufficient capacity, however, may not be. Last but not least, while colleges shot down the first mention of at-home undergraduate admissions tests, both graduate and high schools have set a precedent for use of scores earned on in-home exams. In many ways, remote proctoring can be more secure than what the current paradigm has to offer. So, where will students take digital SAT and ACT tests?
While each of the previous considerations raise practical questions, one more philosophical concern looms above all. Computer-based testing may appear to be a tremendous and expensive hassle for testing organizations, but the benefits of heightened security, increased efficiency, and (my favorite) elimination of incompetent proctors promise rewards worth pursuing. We have not, however, heard about benefits to those millions of teens a year who take the test. Anecdotally, high schoolers in India generally favor the CBT while those in the United States like it less–as if that were even possible–than the traditional paper and pencil tests. A transition on such a massive institutional level inevitable causes stress and suffering throughout, but will everyone feel better off afterwards? Why, exactly, should students take (or even want to take) a digital test?
Big changes raise big questions, which makes the monumental move from paper and pencil to computer-based testing worth working out completely well in advance. The organizations responsible for the two primary college admissions tests (not to mention one of the most respected suites of standardized subject tests) have already made missteps on the path to a digital testing future. They owe it to all of us to move forward with greater clarity, empathy, and insight.