When Will the ACT Start Computer-Based Testing?

Word on the street is that the ACT will eventually ditch paper-based tests. But when will the ACT start computer-based testing?

This question has puzzled ACT preppers and ACT teachers alike. For years, the ACT has made it clear that they plan to transition to computer-based testing eventually. But they haven’t made their exact plans clear.

For example, as early as 2013, ACT officials spoke to the New York Times. At the time, they said that the transition to computer-based testing would begin in 2015. Then 2015 arrived, and PBS reported that the ACT would not be unrolling computer-based testing until 2016.

2016 has come and gone with little or no follow up reporting or announcements from ACT. So, can you take the ACT on a computer yet or not? And– most importantly for students who are more comfortable with the paper-based ACT– will computer-adaptive ACT testing ever replace the paper ACT entirely?

Has the ACT Started Computer-Based Testing? And if Not, When Will They?

Obviously, there have been some delays to the expected start date of ACT computer-based testing. But has computer-based testing started at this point?

To get an answer to this question, I contacted the ACT myself, speaking with a few different departments in the organization. And I now have the inside scoop on all things related to ACT computer-adaptive testing.

Let’s first look at whether or not computerized ACT tests have started yet. The answer? They have, although doing the test on paper is still more common than doing the test on a computer screen.

Where is ACT Computer-Based Testing Available?

According to the ACT’s American test administration office, right now you can only take the ACT test at a keyboard and monitor if you are currently attending a high school in the USA, or have recently graduated from an American high school. It’s important to note, though, that the vast majority of students are still taking it on paper; more on this below!

Liam got a 35 on the ACT. Get a higher ACT score with Magoosh.

There are even more restrictions on the availability of what the ACT calls its “ACT CAT” (ACT Computer-Adaptive Test). The ACT computerized test isn’t available at any exam centers that are directly administered by the test makers. Instead, ACT CAT can only be taken at test sites run by schools or states.

Because the ACT doesn’t directly oversee its computer-based tests right now, their website doesn’t have any kind of “master list” of computer testing availability. However, the ACT officials I spoke with assure me that computer-based testing is not available in every school district. In fact, according to ACT management, there may be entire states that do not yet have ACT CAT.

So how can you know if you have the computer option for the ACT at your school or in your state? That’s easy… ish. Just talk to your high school guidance counselor or get in touch with your state’s department of education. (Not as easy as being able to look at a master list on a website. But still quite doable!)

When Will ACT Computer-Based Testing Be Available Internationally?

Those of you living outside the USA may be asking “What about us?” Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you. And neither has the ACT! The ACT has plans to roll out the ACT CAT overseas in the near future. But, much like the rollout of computer-based ACT testing in the USA, there have been some delays and false starts.

On its own website, the ACT has announced the start of computerized ACT exams at all of its international test centers. The article says this was scheduled for the Fall of 2017. At the time that I’m writing this, that article is still up on the website. However, ACT administrators have told me that the article is no longer accurate. There have been delays; right now, the expected starting point for overseas ACT CAT is the Fall of 2018.

According to an email I received from ACT OSUS (the ACT’s International Test Administration Office):

        “ACT plans to make the transition to computer-based testing in the first half of the 2018-2019 testing cycle. We will have more information in the coming months…”

So assuming there aren’t any more delays, by sometime in Fall 2018, you should see computer-based testing in every single international test site for the ACT. (I also called ACT’s test administration office on the phone to confirm this.)

So Wait… Is the ACT Going to Replace Its Paper Tests Completely?

This is a common question I get from a lot of anxious students. And it’s understandable to be anxious. Many students are more comfortable working with pencil and paper on the ACT.

If you’re more of a “pencil pusher” than a “keyboard clacker,” there’s no immediate worry for American ACT test-takers. Yes, time marches on, and computer-based everything seems inevitable at some point in the future. But as of now, the ACT has no plans to replace American paper-based tests completely with the digital version. It seems they simply want to make the ACT CAT a more and more common option alongside the traditional “dead tree” version of the exam.

If you plan on taking the ACT abroad, and you’re taking it in 2017 or the first half of 2018, you also don’t need to worry about prepping for a computer-adaptive version of the exam.

But what if you are an international student who plans on taking the ACT in Fall 2018 or beyond? In that case, get ready to look at your exam on a screen, not on a sheet. Because when the ACT kicks off their CAT abroad, they intend to go exclusively digital. Unless there are additional delays, paper-based ACTs will be going the way of the dinosaur.

(Well… that’s an exaggeration. It would be more appropriate to say that overseas, the paper-based ACT will be going the way of other nearly extinct papery creatures, such as typewriters and ticker tape.)

How Can I Know if There are More Delays or New Plans?

Watch this space! If Magoosh gets any important new news on this situation, we’ll update this article as needed.

But also, don’t be shy about contacting the ACT itself. The ACT has entire offices devoted to helping people understand how the test is administered… and how it will be administered in the future.

I’m about to give you the contact numbers and emails I used when I researched this post. All of this contact information in publicly available, but it can be a little hard to find on the ACT website.

ACT General Customer Service: To access live chat, send an email, or view the general phone number for ACT support, go to the official Contact ACT web page.

ACT Test Administration: I haven’t been able to find a separate email just for ACT Test Administration, but they do have their own phone number. You can call them at 319-337-1510.

ACT International Test Administration: For questions specifically about international ACT testing, email [email protected] . You can also sign up to receive email updates on computer-based ACT testing abroad. Go to OSUS’s special email list signup link to get all the latest news sent straight to your inbox.

So Why do they Call it a Computer-Adaptive ACT?

Computer-adaptive tests are exams that adjust the difficulty of the next questions, based on how you performed on earlier questions. This means that if you do poorly on the first set of questions in a section of the ACT CAT, the questions that follow could be easier. And if you do really well on part of the ACT CAT right away, the questions will probably get harder.

This makes the scoring system more complicated. On a computer-adaptive test, your score isn’t just based on the amount of correct answers you give. Your score will also be adjusted, based on how difficult or easy your questions were.

Different tests have slightly different computer-adaptive systems, and very little is known– yet– about the ACT’s new, developing CAT. Computer adaptive testing is already very common with graduate level tests such as the GRE and GMAT. To get an idea of what the ACT’s computerized system might be like, read Mike McGarry’s blog post about computer-adaptive testing on the GMAT.


  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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