WASHINGTON - Goodbye, No. 2 pencils. Hello, iPads.
Starting as early as spring 2015, the ACT college admissions exam will go digital, reflecting students' tech savvy and the demand for quicker results. The tests will still have the familiar multiple-choice options for college hopefuls but they will also expand to include interactive portions, such as a simulated science lab for students to conduct experiments or space for students to explain concepts in their own words.
"The days of paper-and-pencil admission testing are changing," Jon Erickson, president of ACT's education division, said during an interview ahead of the company's announcement this week that it would shift to iPads, laptops and desktop computers and away from the familiar optical scan bubble sheets.
"We're attempting to meet students where they are today," he said.
Several states already use computers for statewide tests, and Iowa-based ACT works with 22 of them, from Alaska to Florida. But testing in Kentucky was suspended last week after ACT officials discovered glitches.
Problems with other vendors forced Indiana, Minnesota and Oklahoma to delay their high-stakes testing.
In part, that is why ACT is not rushing to start online offerings for the tests, which help determine, in part, if applicants get into their chosen schools and what scholarships they receive.
ACT officials stress that the traditional, 215-question fill-in-the-bubble tests still would be available for those who prefer the paper-and-No. 2 pencil option.
"Access and comfort level of students will continue to be on the top of our mind," Erickson said. "We don't want to measure a student's computer skills or fears. The most important part will be measuring their learning in school and college readiness standards."
The new testing format - still two years away and optional even then - comes as 45 states and the District of Columbia align their classrooms with Common Core standards, which stress students' reasoning skills over rote memorization.
The ACT, which is designed to test students' high school learning, naturally follows the shift in classroom instruction.
"Hopefully, this will be more relevant than just sitting down and taking a fill-in-the-bubble test," Erickson said.
The tests will still have the familiar sections to measure students' English, math, reading and science understanding, as well as the optional writing section that some colleges require.
"It will look like an ACT in many ways. Some of it will be multiple choice," Erickson said. "There will be some areas where students will manipulate and write. One item that we've been playing with is in a science experiment where students pour liquids from one beaker into another. ... They will work through an experiment from start to finish."
Erickson acknowledged several details have yet to be finalized. For instance, will students' scores be interchangeable and comparable whether they take the tests on an iPad or with a pencil? Will the tests have difference scales based on the format? Will students be able to bring their own iPads with them? What about testing sites that don't have enough devices for all students? And how can test proctors be sure no one is cheating on devices loaded with the Internet, email and all varieties of applications?
"We've been working on this for a number of years. We'll be continuing some field tests," Erickson said.
The digital option will also help ease students' impatience.
The ACT advises students to expect their results in four to six weeks, but their scores typically arrive in about two weeks. With the shift to digital testing, the results could come within minutes of students clicking the "submit" button on their device, although company officials say some delay to verify and record the scores is likely.
In 2012, almost 1.7 million students took the ACT, which is one of two dominant tests high school students take as part of their college applications. Roughly the same number took rival SAT. Those exams are still administered with pencil and paper.