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Montana moves ACT testing online for high school students

Posted at 11:16 AM, Mar 02, 2023

MISSOULA - The ACT has been a common, college-readiness test for high school students since 1959. But like everything in education, the ACT is evolving.

Starting this spring, most Montana high school juniors will take their ACTs entirely on a computer.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) piloted this online version last year and is now urging schools to make the switch this year.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elise Arntzen came out with a statement mid-February, explaining that the district would administer an online ACT to their 2023 high school juniors.

Arntzen said in the statement that she was working on improving ACT test scores, and this decision may help.

“As I’ve said many times, Montana must get back to the basics of Math and Reading so that our students can achieve educational excellence and be college ready,” Arntzen said in the press release.

Other districts are following suit, including Missoula County Public Schools and Kalispell Public Schools.

In an email, Kalispell superintendent Michah Hill said, “Yes, Kalispell Public Schools plans to administer the ACT test online. It's a bit of a juggling act to test almost 800 juniors district-wide. We'll likely break students out into groups so that we have enough available technology. In many cases, provided that the technology works the way it is supposed to, this will streamline and make administration of this test more efficient.”

Barbara Frank, Director of Curriculum and Assessment for MCPS sighted a similar reason for Missoula’s switch to online.

“You can get faster scoring, it’s easier to make sure that students are registered, that all of their information is correct,” Frank says. “I always think there’s benefits to having a technology component to assessment.”

Hamilton Public Schools decided to opt out of the online version this year but will take part in the computer version starting the 2023-24 school year.

In an email, Hamilton High School principal Marlin Lewis said waiting until next year to switch to an online ACT “will allow our staff to better prepare our students for the TIMED Typing version of the ACT next spring.”

Hamilton Schools had to apply for a variance with OPI in order to administer the 2023 ACT on paper.

A lot of high school students start preparing for their ACT as early as freshman year, but this year’s juniors were only recently informed of the switch to online.

Big Sky High School junior Madelyn McInnis, took the paper ACT earlier this year as a way to prepare for her second test.

“It’s like I took the paper test to prepare to take the ACT again, and then I’m taking something else,” McInnis says.

ACT prep work is mostly done on paper, and these students have expected an ACT assessment similar to their practice tests.

McInnis says she wished there were more ways to prepare herself for the timed typing version.

“There's only one practice test that’s available for the ACT online, and there’s like seven paper ones that you can print out,” she says.

Still, students don’t feel the switch will affect them negatively. In fact, most would prefer an online version.

“I think the paper one was okay, it feels kind of archaic because you have to spend so long making sure the bubbles are filled in correctly, and then what’s hard for me is when I took the ACT, where I was situated, I couldn’t see the clock, because it was behind me, which was kind of difficult,” McInnis says.

For this generation of students, online testing isn’t a novelty.

“Growing up, in this era of technology, my whole life, almost all of my school work has been online, especially with COVID and stuff,” says Big Sky High School junior Finley Stratford. “So I feel like I’m kind of in tune with that more than writing on paper.”

Barbara Frank says more students will be on board with a computer ACT rather than the paper one. She believes even with the late notice, high schoolers won’t have much problem adjusting.

“I think when you talk to high school students, they’re more surprised to do something on paper, than they are to do something electronically,” she says.

An online ACT has several benefits. Students can hear answers read aloud, they can highlight or zoom in, flip through their answers easier and time themselves with the computer clock.

It also eliminates the possibility for human error while filling in answer sheets or organizing tests.

Instead of sitting in a large auditorium with only a few proctors, students will be split into small groups and given computers to take the test.

While this will require more trained proctors, Frank says it saves a lot of work in the long run.

“There’s lots of security features to these kinds of tests, so when you’re doing it with paper, you’ve got to have everything organized alphabetically,” she says. “So there’s a lot more clerical work to a paper version, and really a lot more opportunities for tests to get lost, misplaced, because you’re dealing all with paper.”

A possible setback to an online ACT is technology issues, which is a risk whenever testing is done electronically.

Every student in MCPS will take the test the same day — April 12 — at their home high school. This could potentially bog down servers and cause crashes.

This concern is one of the reasons the state piloted the online version last year. They have slowly built up a reliable infrastructure to account for the high traffic during the ACT.

Students who took the ACT during the pandemic may think this switch is coming too late.

Many people who took the ACT during COVID were required to drive far distances to maintain social distancing rules.

Frank says the state was not ready for an online version at the time.

“I don’t think they had the infrastructure or the planning ready to roll out the online version during the COVID testing years,” Frank says.

An online ACT does not mean the test will eventually be able to be administered at home to students.

“We learned that during COVID, we allowed some of our benchmarking assessments to be done at home, and those scores were very different than when students took those in the building,” Frank says.

Overall, the switch seemed inevitable, and will likely be standard moving forward.