The Digital ACT – An Option For U.S. Students Testing in 2024

Jul 10, 2023

A Long-Overdue Shift

On May 30th, the ACT announced that the company will be offering an online version of the college admissions exam to US students. This is a long-overdue step forward, as a more widespread computer-based option for the ACT test had initially been announced as in development in 2019. This change is finally on the horizon, and it could be exciting news for families with students planning to test in 2024. 

When Does Digital Testing Begin?

In December of 2023, a limited number of test centers across the country will be part of a pilot program for the computer-based ACT test format. This pilot will service approximately 5,000 testers, which will be a small fraction of the students testing that weekend. Registration for the pilot will begin in July. The ACT plans to extend capacity of the program to include more test centers for students throughout 2024.

What is Changing? 

The short answer is: not as much as one might think. Whereas the SAT, its main competitor, is in the process of a major overhaul, the fabric of the ACT will not change: sections and questions types will not be modified, and the ACT will remain a non-adaptive test. Students will now have the option of testing through a paper-based or digital format. Fees, score reporting, and fee waiver requirements will reportedly not change – and will be the same regardless of which delivery method a student chooses. Furthermore, computer-based ACTs are already being administered to certain U.S. school districts from as early as 2016, and the digital test has been the sole option for International students since 2018 – so we have a good idea of what to expect.

Which Format is Best For My Student?

There are benefits and challenges to both formats. While various studies have shown that the majority of high school students prefer computer-based exams, everyone’s personal preferences are different, and we have worked with a variety of students who have strong inclinations toward one or the other. 

The computer-based ACT boasts embedded annotation tools that work to mimic a students’ annotation options on a paper-based test and, in some cases, provide even more flexibility. The tools available to testers are as follows:

  • Magnifier
  • Highlighter
  • Line Reader (helpful for scanning the text for details)
  • Answer Eliminator (helpful for process of elimination)
  • Answer Masking (helpful to avoid trap answers)
  • Testing Timer
  • Question Flagging (to easily skip and return)
  • Omitted Question Warning (so students won’t forget a skipped question)

Although these tools are fairly intuitive, they tend to be a little clunky, and some students – especially those who already struggle with timing – could find them to be frustrating. Annotating free-hand on a paper test will, thus, be preferable for some students, whereas some will still gravitate toward the digital format. 

For the Reading and Science sections, the complete passage will be displayed on the left-hand side of the screen for each question. Some students will be happy to not have to flip back and forth between different pages when working a question. On the other hand, any annotations a student adds to a passage will not stay on the screen when they move onto the next question. Accordingly, this functionality could be detrimental to certain students’ approaches.

One reason that the ACT cited for the shift to computer-based testing is a need for greater accessibility. The digital ACT is, without question, a more accessible test. With text-to-speech functionality and text zooming features built into the user interface, the digital test can accommodate students with accessibility needs on a larger scale.

Next Steps

The ACT should be releasing more robust information on the evolution of ACT in the coming months. In the meantime, we encourage students to explore both formats to see which feels most comfortable to them. Students can check out the computer-based testing format and tools on the ACT Global site (at the bottom of the linked page). 

Additionally, Onsen program managers are available to help further walk you through the differences in the formats and advise you based on your student’s individual strengths. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for further information.

We wish you the best of luck on your college admissions journey!

Written by

Zachary Adler
Author Image Since 2010, Zach has been helping students achieve their college readiness goals, specializing in all sections of the SAT, ACT, PSAT, and SHSAT. Prior to joining Onsen, Zach worked for a global investment firm, as well as in various roles in the education space. He has served as a youth mentor and has run college readiness information sessions for students in under-resourced communities. Additionally, Zach is a writer and filmmaker. He is an International Baccalaureate scholar and a graduate of Boston University.

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