Paper test or virtual test?

Parents often ask me questions about how they can best support their child with what they’re learning. Many feel they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t doing the right thing, to help their child succeed. I see a lot of these questions more than once, so I’ve decided to collect them and post them here for other parents to read, in case that advice is helpful.

All my advice is based on my own experience from almost 10 years of working with students with learning differences, and on my M.Ed. training at Villanova University.

Hi Jonah,

I am currently looking at test centers to sign [my daughter] up for the SSAT and I have a few choices of test center. Some are offering the test on paper and others she takes it on a computer. 

Is there a big difference? Is it the same test? The computer tests are better for her schedule and it looks like they don’t take as long but I know she likes paper for practice.



Hi P,

Very relevant question, and I’m glad you asked. The short answer is no, there isn’t a big difference. The virtual SSAT and the paper SSAT are the same test. But I still think she should take the paper test, and that’s for a few reasons:

First of all, the strategies we’ve been learning work best on the paper test. [Your daughter] is learning to skim through the reading and pick out important information, so she can answer questions quickly without reading every word of the passage. That means underlining and circling important parts of the text, and interacting with it physically in a couple ways she’s come up with (she likes stars and swirls instead of underlines). That’s possible on a digital test, since you can highlight text, but it’s not nearly as flexible, and I’d rather she have all the strategies at her disposal. She’s also learning to process difficult geometry and algebra questions visually, and to make a lot of notes on the paper test about measurements and relationships. She could do this on scratch paper, but it’s not as convenient as drawing right on the test paper, and some test centers only provide a whiteboard and marker, so you have to erase your work as you go. That restricts her ability to go back to a difficult question later and pick up where she left off, which is an important part of her timing strategy on the math.

But actually the biggest reason I’d say she should go with the paper test is the benefit to her sustained focus. [Your daughter] tends to to fidget and bounce, especially as she needs to sit still for a long period of time. There are a lot of things she can interact with on a paper test (paper corners to fold, edges to rip, doodles to draw) that she can’t do with a digital test, and I recommend she do those things on her homework. It can be disruptive in class, I know, but when she’s taking this test alone and not distracting anyone, it helps her focus.

That’s because I like to think of ADHD like being in a slow-moving car. You want to get to your destination (solving the math problem), but the car won’t go fast enough. You can’t speed the car up, so you get distracted looking out the window. Since you actually can’t go any faster, you start working on something else while you’re waiting for the car to get there. In this analogy, the car is the method [your daughter] is using to solve the math problem. The rate at which she applies the technique is much slower than her brain moves (her brain moves VERY fast), so she gets frustrated and bored that she’s moving slowly and starts a new task. 

When we give her brain things to do to keep her occupied while she works on the math (fidgeting, interacting with the test physically, doodling), but that don’t take up the same mental processes as doing math, she can stay focused on the math. It’s the same principle behind a fidget toy or a fidget band for a desk. Having a way to keep her occupied while she works will mean far fewer silly mistakes in the long run.

Hope this helps, and I’m happy to answer follow-up questions if you have them.


This student came to me with a diagnosis for ADHD, but the family didn’t want to pursue testing accommodations. That means we needed to focus on timing strategies that allowed her to actually look at and consider every question. If she’d had extra time, we’d just take a break every five questions or so and she’d be fine. Because we didn’t have time to take breaks and refocus, we needed to find ways to refocus as she worked. For this very active kid, that happened to be physical tasks that she could do without disrupting the math going on in her brain.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the one that was best suited for this student for this test. If I were her math tutor, we’d find another way to address it. But since the goal of our program was to maximize her test score, I decided this was the best way to go about it. That’s my bias showing: I don’t think there’s anything valuable to learn from the process of studying for the SSAT other than to get a high score, so that’s all I focus on. After nearly a decade of doing this, I’m convinced these tests are just hoops students have to jump through in order to apply, and don’t actually measure anything important (or at least not in an effective way). That means we raise that score as quickly as we can in the time we have, so the kid can get back to doing more important things with their time.