ACT Format Changes - Digital vs. Paper

Exploring both the digital and paper ACT formats, we'll highlight the essential factors to help students make a well-informed choice that aligns with their preferences and needs.

As students navigate college entrance exams, they are faced with numerous decisions to make. Among these choices, a significant one for those opting for the ACT® this year is whether to stick with the traditional pen-and-paper method or embrace the newer online testing option. This decision carries considerable weight, as it can impact the testing experience and outcomes. Exploring both approaches, we'll highlight the essential factors to help students make a well-informed choice that aligns with their preferences and needs.

Test Structure: Unchanged Consistency

While the ACT® now offers the choice between paper and pencil or digital testing, one aspect that remains consistent is the structure of the exam. Regardless of the format students choose, the test's fundamental components and scoring criteria remain unchanged.

Testing Time

The ACT® still adheres to its time-tested schedule, comprising a total testing time of 2 hours and 55 minutes for the core sections, with an additional 40 minutes allocated for the optional essay. This duration allows for comprehensive assessment across all subjects giving students adequate time to demonstrate their abilities.


The ACT® retains its familiar structure, consisting of four main tests covering English, Math, Reading, and Science, along with the option to include the Writing Test. This consistent framework provides students with a clear understanding of what to expect on test day, allowing them to prepare effectively and strategize their approach to each section.

Score Range

Just as before, the ACT® score range remains unchanged, with composite scores ranging from 1 to 36. For the optional Writing Test, scores are assigned within a range of 2 to 12 for each of the four writing domain categories. 


The ACT® offers accommodations to those students with disabilities or special needs. These accommodations may include extended time (up to time and a half or double time), large print or Braille materials for visually impaired students, assistive technology use, separate testing rooms, test breaks, reader or scribe assistance, permission for snacks or medication, and flexible scheduling. Each accommodation is provided based on individual needs and requires prior approval.

English Learner Supports

The ACT® test offers a range of supports tailored to assist English learners in showcasing their academic abilities. These supports, available upon approval by ACT®, encompass extended time, which can extend up to time and a half, providing students with the necessary flexibility to navigate the exam thoroughly. Additionally, English learners can utilize an approved word-to-word bilingual dictionary, without definitions, to aid in comprehension. Moreover, the option of receiving test directions in their native language ensures clarity and comprehension, fostering a conducive testing environment. For those who may benefit from a more familiar setting, the opportunity to test in a familiar environment or a small group setting is also provided, offering comfort and ease during the assessment process. These EL supports collectively aim to level the playing field, empowering students to demonstrate their true academic potential.

Choice and Accessibility

The ACT® now offers students the flexibility to choose between paper and pencil or digital testing. This marks a significant step forward in catering to individual preferences and needs. The introduction of online testing not only enhances choice but also improves accessibility. Features like screen reader support, text-to-speech functionality, and answer masking ensure that all students, regardless of their circumstances, can demonstrate their true potential.

Convenience and Flexibility

One of the most apparent advantages of online testing is the convenience it offers. Students no longer need to worry about bringing pencils, erasers, or calculators. However, they may still opt to use a handheld calculator if they prefer – everything is digital and provided at the testing center. Additionally, online testing can provide quicker access to scores, with results for non-writing sections available within two business days. This swift turnaround can be invaluable, especially for students with tight application deadlines or those seeking early admissions.

Familiarity and Comfort

When considering which format to choose, it's essential to assess comfort level with online testing. Students who are accustomed to digital learning and frequently engage with electronic practice tests may find the transition to online testing smoother. On the other hand, those who prefer the tactile experience of paper exams might feel more at ease with the traditional format. Keep in mind, factors like screen fatigue and concerns about technical glitches should be taken into account when making a decision.

Preparation and Performance

The test format can influence preparation strategies and ultimately, performance on test day. For example, students opting for the paper and pencil ACT® might focus on practicing with physical materials, utilizing annotation techniques, and managing time without on-screen aids. On the other hand, those preparing for the digital ACT® might prioritize familiarizing themselves with the online interface, utilizing features like highlighting and scratch paper, and leveraging the on-screen timer to optimize time management.

Making an Informed Decision

To make an informed decision, consider factors such as where the ACT® will be taken, how quickly the results are needed, and comfort level with online testing. Consult with school counselors or teachers to understand options and any specific procedures or preferences the school may have regarding testing formats. Additionally, reflect on any previous experience with digital learning during the COVID-19 pandemic – did the student thrive in online environments, or did the student miss the traditional classroom setting?

Consistency and Support with Horizon Education

In the midst of offering students the choice between paper and pencil or digital testing, the ACT® maintains its consistency and reliability in its test structure and scoring methodology. Whether students opt for the traditional paper format or embrace the digital version, they can trust that the ACT's® core components remain unchanged, providing a familiar and equitable testing experience for all students.

As students navigate this decision-making process and prepare for the ACT®, Horizon Education stands ready to support them every step of the way. Our commitment to providing comprehensive practice assessments and curriculum empowers students to excel, regardless of the mode of delivery.

By offering tailored resources and simulated digital testing environments, Horizon Education equips students with the tools they need to thrive in this new digital era of standardized testing. Whether it's familiarizing themselves with online interfaces or honing their skills, students can rely on Horizon Education to help them prepare effectively.

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