Computer vs. Paper Testing: Which is Best?

Among all the choices test takers must make, a new one has recently been added: computer or paper? Some tests, such as the SAT and ACT, are currently only offered on paper, though that might change in the near future. Other tests, such as the GRE, are only offered on the computer. But many tests today—including the CBEST and ISEE—give test takers a choice. Here is some information about the pros and cons of each option.

 Advantages of the Paper Test

Mark up the test: One of the biggest advantages of the paper test is that test takers can write on a physical test booklet. This can be especially useful for students who have been taught test-taking strategies that involve underlining, circling, and making margin notes.

Familiar format for most students: Though some schools are transitioning to computer-based standardized tests, most students are still more familiar with paper tests.

Advantages of the Computer Test

Convenient and flexible scheduling: Most computer testing centers allow test takers to schedule the date and time that works best for them, at the most convenient test center. This can be especially helpful for last-minute registrations and students who perform better at a non-traditional testing time, such as later in the day.

No bubble sheet: On the paper test, one alignment error on the bubble sheet can sabotage a student’s score on that entire section. On the computer test, students can click on the correct answer choices directly.

Immediate feedback: For many tests, including the GRE and CBEST, students receive a preliminary score on the multiple choice section before leaving the testing center. This is especially helpful for tests that allow retakes, as test takers know upon leaving if they need to keep studying and try again.

Familiar format for some students: As public schools and many private schools move to computerized testing, some students may be more used to this format than the paper test.

Student-Specific Pros and Cons

Some aspects of each test format will be an advantage for some students and a disadvantage for others.

Type the essay(s): On computerized tests, all test takers type their essays and written responses using a simple word processing program that doesn’t include spelling and grammar check. For many, this is faster, neater, and less writer’s-cramp-inducing than writing on paper. Typing the essay can be especially helpful for test takers with messy writing or those who like to edit as they write. For people who type slowly or prefer paper and pen, however, typing the essay may put them at a disadvantage.

Leave when you’re finished: On most paper tests, students who finish early must sit quietly at their desks, often without any form of entertainment other than their scratch paper, until all students are finished with that section. On the computer test, students can submit their answers once they’re finished, whether they’ve used all the time or not. Being able to leave the test early is a nice option for students who can score well in less time, especially on a test like the CBEST where most test takers have enough time to finish without feeling rushed. For reluctant testers, those who might get frustrated during the test, and those who tend to rush through their work, however, being able to finish early might work against them. On the paper ISEE test, for example, a student who finishes early has to wait until the time runs out for that section. While sitting there, that student might decide to check his answers or go back to some tough questions where he had just guessed and work harder to find the answer. On the computer test, though, a student who gets frustrated could just go click-click-click-click-click through an entire section, destroying his test score in his effort to be finished.

Testing accommodations and special needs: Many students with processing and/or attention difficulties prefer the paper test because they can write on it. With proper documentation, a student can receive accommodations to circle the answers directly on the test and type the essay while taking the paper test. On the computer test, however, accommodations can often be delivered without requiring students to test in a separate room or otherwise draw attention to their learning differences, which might help students who are hesitant to take advantage of the accommodations they need.

Best Practices for All Test Takers

If you’re not sure about which option is best, try a practice test in both formats and see which one you or your child prefer. Whichever one it is, make sure to practice at least a few times with that format. For example, get used to writing on scratch paper instead of the test if you’re planning on the computer test, and practice writing your essay with pen and paper if you’re taking the paper version.

No matter how you decide to test, good preparation is the key to success. If you would like a tutor in the Los Angeles area or online, contact me to find out how we can work together!

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