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Listen up, class, there will be a test

September 19, 2013 Updated: September 19, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Saturday is the first opportunity this school year for juniors and seniors to take the standardized assessment known as the ACT in preparation for submitting college applications.

But by next academic year, some students will have less to worry about - such as making sure they bring plenty of sharpened pencils.

The ACT, a nonprofit organization established in 1959 and based in Iowa City, Iowa, is gearing up to start offering online testing in the spring of 2015, said Paul Weeks, vice president of career and college readiness education for the ACT.

Field testing of the new system is taking place now in 27 states, he said. No Colorado schools have participated in the studies yet.

Several factors are driving the change, Weeks said, including requests from schools, technological advancements, shrinking budgets and the call for increasing accountability in education.

Moving online will have several benefits, he said.

"You can create a better user experience when students are engaged in assessment in a more similar way that they learn every day," he said. "We're not putting it online just to put it online; we're leveraging technology to the degree it will help us help teachers and policymakers."

Also, there will be a quicker turnaround time for results, which now take about two to four weeks to receive.

How will it work?

"Our intent is to support tablet administration, as well as laptops or desktops," Weeks said. "We're very much aware of the investment schools and districts have made in technology and want to use that."

It might be a hard sell for some students, though.

"Standardized testing has always been on paper. Some students may take it less seriously (if it's computerized)," said Palmer High School senior Hannah McIntyre.

Aidan Murphy, another Palmer senior who's scheduled to take the ACT for the second time on Saturday, said he doesn't like online testing.

"The ACT is three-and-a-half hours. Looking at a screen that long is hard, and a lot of people I know prefer paper so you can write things down and figure them out," he said.

The students, both in Palmer's International Baccalaureate program, said they understand the positive aspects, such as saving paper and money, and that some students prefer working on a computer.

"It'll be a matter of getting people used to the idea of taking it online," McIntyre said.

"It won't be an easy transition," Murphy added.

Some issues are still being studied, Weeks said, including whether Internet browsers can be locked to prevent students from looking up information during testing.

"We need to be able to feel good about the level of security - you wouldn't want a student to be able to go to Wikipedia," Weeks said. "We'll have those and other safeguards in place, including making sure the testing environment is conducive to students not looking over each other's shoulders."

Some things won't change, he added: "The ACT's commitment to the quality of the assessment, the validation of the results and the benchmarks."

The test content, multiple-choice format and composite scoring also will remain the same. The ACT gauges student achievement in English, reading, math and science, and an optional writing test.

Computerized testing initially will be optional, with schools, districts and states making the decision as to which format they prefer. Additional "constructed response questions" also may be added as an option for online test takers.

All four-year colleges and universities in the United States accept ACT results and also weigh grade point average, class rank, extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation and other factors for admission and scholarship benefits.

"The other thing that won't change is the best preparation for the ACT is to take good courses, which develop the skills measured on the ACT," Weeks said.

Colorado is one of 13 states to provide one free ACT test to high school juniors in public schools in the spring. The test will be administered to current juniors on April 23.

The 53,826 11th graders who took the test this year had an average composite score of 20.1 on a scale of 0 to 36. That's a slight increase over 20 in 2012.

There are five remaining ACT testing dates for this school year: Oct. 26, Dec. 14, Feb. 8, April 12, and June 14. The deadline to register for the Oct. 26 test is Sept. 27.

The ACT has become the most popular college entrance exam, with nearly 3 million tests administered each academic year, Weeks said.

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