Will the ACT (Ever) Go Digital?

While the SAT has been making headlines with its upcoming transition to a fully digital and adaptive model for testing, the ACT has been keeping a much lower profile. In spite of the lack of media attention, the leadership at the ACT, Inc. has been making moves of its own, laying out the strategic direction for the second biggest college admissions test in the US.

At a recent conference in Atlanta, Janet Godwin, CEO of the ACT, Inc. gave a clearer vision of the future of the organization and its flagship test. Here are some of the key insights from her keynote address:

  1. Sectional retesting is dead – at least for now. Just a few years ago, the testing universe was abuzz with excitement and intrigue about this new development, the ability to come in on a Saturday morning, take a single section (or two or three) of the ACT, and then go home. Students were very excited. ACT Researchers provided evidence that this would yield reliable and valid results. But college admissions officers were not convinced, and the ACT, Inc. is not prepared to offer something that may inspire the animus of the stakeholders they need to keep on their side. The ACT, Inc. has pulled all mention of sectional testing from its website. 
  2. The Writing section is sticking around. When the College Board sunsetted its SAT Writing, most professionals in our space were waiting for the ACT to follow suit. But Godwin insists the value of the Writing section remains intact, particularly for international students. Some states continue to require the ACT Writing. If states continue to require it, and international students continue to use it to demonstrate their writing skills, the Writing section will remain, even if it has a much smaller footprint and impact on the admissions process.
  3. The ACT may eventually go digital, but will always have a paper option. Bucking the dominant trend in admissions testing, the ACT, Inc. is committed to keeping a paper option for students. Godwin was clear, “We will always have an option for paper.” This is surprising given the shift to digital delivery for most every major admissions test in the country. Godwin doesn’t want to be “disruptive” to the districts and states that are comfortable with paper. 

The challenge will become how to provide adequate test-security in an age where leaked paper test-forms have wreaked so much havoc on the international testing stage. Breaches in test-security drove the ACT to force all international students to take digital ACTs starting in 2018. A breach in security also drove the ACT to cancel a national testing date in 2018. 

For four years the ACT has been administering digital tests internationally. And this spring, 40% of districts in the U.S. opted for a digital ACT option. There are states who never want to return to paper. But some districts and states are hesitant to make the change. There are still some issues with bandwidth and tech support. 

While the College Board is forging ahead, the ACT, Inc. is loath to move too quickly with its domestic contracts. There is an institutional memory of the debacle that was the 2014 rollout of the ACT Aspire, which led to massive contractual losses for the organization. Godwin wants to provide an online option for national test dates, and the ACT, Inc. will likely do some small studies this year. But there will be no national changes before the 2023-2024 school year.

When asked about the likelihood of a digital adaptive test, Godwin offered that it was a possibility, but was not settled. Where her predecessor, Marten Roorda, was fully committed to the complete migration to digital adaptive assessment, Godwin is much more cautious. The initial rollout of the digital ACT to international students was supposed to be adaptive- back in 2017- but that never transpired. Going forward, Godwin wants to make sure a score from a digital adaptive test would correlate with a paper score so that they could maintain the same scale, and keep things simple for admissions offices. Whether the test would be question adaptive, like the GMAT, or section adaptive like the GRE and digital SAT, remains to be determined.

Final thoughts

So the ACT is taking a more cautious approach as the SAT forges ahead into uncharted territory. The pandemic clearly changed the ACT, Inc. and its strategy. Transformational plans went by the wayside as the testing giant shifted to survival mode. Things have now stabilized, and the ACT is back in the black and on a stable footing. The national shift to test-optional admissions is certainly leading to a more circumspect approach. They want to continue to meet the needs of the marketplace and serve their customers and stakeholders, without rocking the boat. Eventually, test-security issues may drive them back to the table to reconsider the relative security of digital test-administrations, but for now they are going to allow the College Board to make the big moves into that space.


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