SALT LAKE CITY — Students taking the ACT exam will soon trade in their No. 2 pencils and paper for a keyboard and mouse.
Beginning in the spring of 2015, schools and students will have the option of using a digital version of the exam, which assesses college readiness in math, science, reading and English.
Jon Erickson, ACT education division president, said the digital test will initially resemble the traditional paper test, but in time the technology could allow for questions that incorporate video and audio presentations or adapt to a student's skill level.
The digital format also allows for immediate delivery of a student's score.
"Results can be returned to the student much quicker, if not almost immediately, and we’ll be able to have scores and results tailored to the receiving audience," Erickson said. "We’re scratching the surface on what we can do in a digital-delivered type of assessment. The first phase is exciting, but I expect rapid innovation and development in phases two, three, four and five."
The quick delivery of results was a key driver in the development of a digital testing format, he said. Officials are still working through the specifics of how results will be delivered — hand-scored portions of the test, such as the optional writing component, take extra time — but the hope is to shorten the waiting period as much as possible to give students and colleges a head start on enrollment decisions.
"It may take a little bit longer initially, but eventually it could be minutes or seconds after you tested," Erickson said. "Most of us want to have our results the second we finish because our attention and focus is right there."
The new test is also meant to reflect the increasingly ubiquitous nature of computers and technology in a student's life, he said. The ACT will continue to offer a paper option for schools with limited resources and students who do not have access to technology, but for the majority of students who have grown up around computers, the new test provides a way to better measure learning, Erickson said.
"This has been in the planning for a long time, but we’re not doing it for the technology," he said. "It’s really a vehicle around the need to address immediacy of results, new ways to measure skill performance, and informing and improving instruction."
The ACT has long been the dominant college entrance exam in Utah, but in recent years, schools have administered the test to nearly all public high school students as a statewide initiative to assess college readiness. That practice was codified into Utah law this year with the passage of SB175, which provided funding for the administration of a college readiness assessment.
In 2012, Utah's average ACT score was 20.7, which ranked second in the nation when compared with states where more than 95 percent of students took the test.
That same year, a record number of graduating students in the United States — roughly 52 percent — took the ACT.
Brenda Hales, deputy state superintendent, said Utah's schools have begun moving in the direction of computer-based testing, but there is still a need for increased resources.
Hales said the average school computer in the state is 6 or 7 years old, and testing days can often consume a school's entire computer network due to a lack of infrastructure.
"As Utah looks forward to the future and having 23rd century education, we're going to need technology resources that aren't available today, and keeping up with those technology resources is a big challenge," she said. "It can’t be solved with one-time money. It’s building into the budget technology funding so you can replace what you have and stay current."
Hales said a digital transition for the ACT was inevitable and only time will tell if the test improves as a result. But she added that state education officials embrace the need for technology and are encouraged by the innovation it allows.
"(Today's) kids are digital natives, and they can't understand when you don't have digital resources for them at school," Hales said. "That's how they're used to learning."
Casey McAffee, a junior at Tooele High School, said she has taken the ACT twice but would have preferred a digital option. She said taking the test on a computer would probably require participants to be more spread out than they currently are, and it would eliminate the sometimes cumbersome task of balancing test materials on a classroom desk.
"I dropped my papers several times," McAffee said. "They give you, like, four different packets you have to keep track of."
Giovanni Parker, a Tooele High School sophomore, said it's odd that the test hasn't gone digital yet. He said a computer-based version probably wouldn't change the way he studies or prepares for the test, but he would still prefer it to a pencil and paper version.
"I think I would like to take it on a computer," he said. "It seems easier to have everything in one place."
Erickson said the test is still in development, but so far the education community has responded positively to ACT's plans for a digital test.
"I think the general response has been very positive in that anything that helps make the college pipeline more efficient and more personalized is a very good thing," he said.