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Think Your New ACT Writing Score Is Wrong? Recent Issues, Explained

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Jan 22, 2016 6:00:00 PM

ACT Writing

 

feature_actproblemsandsolutions.jpgIf you took the ACT with Writing in September, October, or December of 2015, you may have been taken by surprise by the change in the essay prompt (compared to previous ACT Writing tests). And when you got your scores back...well, you may have been even more confused.

While the change in the ACT essay format was announced ahead of time, the full explanation of how the Writing scores would be normalized was not made clear until after the first administration of the new ACT Writing test. Because of this, ACT, Inc. faced a bit of controversy about the scoring of the new Writing test. Now they've returned to a 12-point scoring scale, with a more transparent calculation system. Read on to learn what all this means for you. 

feature image credit: Shock and Awe by Pascal. Public domain.

 

Some Quick Background Information

Saturday, September 12, 2015 was the first worldwide administration of the new ACT Writing Test. The changes to the essay included a completely different assignment, a different scoring system (essay scores range from 1-36 instead of 2-12), and a different amount of time for the essay (40 minutes instead of 30).

These parameters were made publicly available beforehand (although they were not perhaps publicized as widely as they could have been), so while some students didn’t realize the test was changing, that part wasn't entirely ACT, Inc.'s fault.

 

Deadline Drama

Many students applying early decision or early action to schools had thought that taking the September ACT would leave plenty of time for their scores to be ready before those November 1st Early Decision or Early Action deadlines. After all, in the past, multiple choice scores had been released by a couple of weeks after the test date, and Writing scores by a couple of weeks after that. Even though ACT, Inc. gave its standard caution that scores could take as much as 8 weeks, most students expected (reasonably) that their scores would be in and sent to colleges well before the ED/EA deadlines.

It rapidly became apparent, however, that scoring the Writing tests was taking longer than usual, presumably because of the new scoring for the new Writing test.

On October 14th (about one month after the September 12th test date), one student complained:

"My writing score isn't up yet, even though I got my multiple choice scores 2 weeks ago. This is so frustrating."

Six days later, students and parents alike were starting to get nervous. As one parent wrote,

"...apparently most people who took the September 12th test have still not received their complete scores, which is putting some ED applications in jeopardy. (I have a niece in this situation.)"

The concern students were feeling about not having their Writing scores back rapidly snowballed when it was realized that, if you take the ACT with Writing, ACT, Inc. won't send out your score report at all until your essay has been graded. This meant that if your essay wasn’t graded before the end of October (or before October 15th, in the case of some ED/EA deadlines), whatever school(s) you were applying to wouldn’t even get to see your multiple choice scores on English, Math, Reading, and Science for the September ACT.

Soon, the frenzy about the delay in Writing scores spread beyond (mainly student-populated) forums to online news sites. As Examiner.com reported:

So far, ACT has refused to support students affected by the absence of Writing scores by sending colleges official score reports minus the Writing score for those needing these results for early consideration. No reason has been provided, only an indication that it’s not the policy of ACT to send partial results.

This policy made many students and parents less than happy with ACT, Inc.

“Still no writing score. As many of you, cannot get scores out without writing. We reached out to some colleges to let them know that an updated score would be coming. Very disappointing, as ACT released the MC choice later than expected (states on their website "most" score are released within 2 weeks.... So of course they did not release the MC scores timely, and then once again, falsely state that the writing score would be available 14 days after MC scores are released -- again, did not occur. So, same story as you all -- and then of course those who still have not even received your MC scores -- my heart goes out to you... Bottom line - ACT needs to revise their processes, it's just not working well or fairly.”

(source: College Confidential)

Most likely as a result of the outcry from students and parents, ACT, Inc. reached out to schools in October to notify them of the issue with the delay in score release. Inside Higher Ed reported that ACT, Inc. had sent an email to the National Association of College Admission Counseling urging colleges to allow screenshots of multiple-choice scores from the September ACT as a stopgap measure.

While many students were unhappy with the score delay, however, it was clear that ACT, Inc. was still within the timeframe it had set out for itself for grading the essays. As another College Confidential poster wrote:

"There is no "fiasco". When we signed up for the Sept. test, the website very clearly stated what bluebayou posted above. This means that some people will not have their complete score report until after Nov. 1, since 8 weeks after Sept. 12 is clearly after Nov. 1. D has received all of her scores, including writing, as of last week. But we went in knowing that they might be late enough that she'd miss an EA date or two. I don't know why it's shocking to people that ACT is releasing scores exactly as the website says it will."

Because of the scoring issues in September, when students asked if the December ACT with Writing scores would be available by January, I advised that the answer was probably NO.

 

The Plot Thickens

So...some students thought they’d be able to squeeze in one more ACT before early decision/early action deadlines, but it turns out they were wrong. So what?

Well, the ACT Writing scoring saga doesn’t stop there. When students finally did get their scores back, confusion still abounded over how exactly these scores were reached. Students who were used to getting in the 30s on all the other sections of the ACT found that they were getting essay scores in the low 20s on the Writing section. One student posted on Reddit:

“I was really disappointed that I got a 20 on writing but 32 composite.. I pretty much can't send this score anymore.”

For students who didn’t know there was a new prompt, or who have difficulty writing under pressure, low Writing scores weren't all that surprising. But some students soon realized that there seemed to be a disconnect between their writing subscores and their overall essay scores.

As another confused student put it:

“I received a 9 on all subscores for Writing, but my score came out to a 24. Is this correct on ACT's part, or is there a scoring error??”

It seemed that the Writing scores on, for instance, the September 2015 ACT were equated differently from how ACT, Inc. had announced they'd be scored. For instance, one commenter on our blog received 11/12 on all four subscores but a 31/36 for her ACT Writing score, whereas the Preparing for the ACT 2015-2016 PDF indicated that 11/12 on all four subscores should result in a 34/36 Writing score.

Another student on a different site noted this same issue, writing:

“…what's also weird is that the curve for the writing section changes for each administration. So, 11/11/11/11 may be a 31 on one test (like the September one) and a 34 on a different test (the 2015-2016 Official Practice Test). It seems odd that there isn't a uniform curve for the writing section. How is one prompt harder than another prompt?”

Was ACT, Inc. changing how the Writing test was scored from test to test? If so, it hadn't made that fact clear beforehand.

Still other students saw a precipitous drop in their essay scores from one administration of the new Writing test to the next. One angry student wrote:

“I literally just got my Dec 12th test back, and my composite is a whopping 35, but my writing score is 09. This is extremely peculiar, because the last two times I took the test, my writing scores were 34 and 35, respectively, and if anything, I only IMPROVED during my most recent attempt. Clearly my writing booklet has been mixed up with someone else's, because this is not only an inaccurate measure of my abilities, but a clear CLERICAL error.”

 

What Happened?

Why the huge issues with scoring for ACT Writing? Why were normally 32+ composite scoring students getting single-digit scores on the ACT Writing?

I believe that there were a couple of reasons that things went so wrong.

 

1. Grading Error

Every time the ACT is administered, a few tests are graded incorrectly. Whether the wrong score report gets sent out, or the scanner read a “7” instead of a “27,” or you didn't fill in your multiple choice answers darkly enough…these things happen.

The fraction of students who are affected by these errors is so small that it’s normally not an issue. In addition, any scoring errors on the previous ACT Writing test might not have been as noticeable, since there were smaller gaps between the score points. It was conceivable that you could go from a 11/12 on a good day to a 6/12 on a not-so-great day.

However, the September and December ACT administrations were critical for early and regular admissions deadlines, which made students hyper-conscious of any unusual blips in their scores. Add that to the change in scoring method, and there were just more people complaining about oddly low scores than usual.

 

2. Norming Error

ACT, Inc. did finally release a concordance chart for the new ACT writing test in late September.

body_actwritingconcordanceproperties-1.png

This chart explains how the current system of ACT Writing scoring and the old system are linked. Basically, ACT, Inc. ran a special score concordance study where the same group of students took both essay tests. The scores for the new ACT Writing were then normalized so that the same numbers of students got scores at each new score point as they would have on the old essay (although it wasn’t necessarily the same students in each percentile). Normalizing scores like this is a little tricky because, just like when comparing the SAT and ACT, the scores aren’t on the same scale, so some extra math is required to equate the scores.

Here is a copy of the chart the ACT has released comparing the previous out-of-12 Writing scores to the current out-of-36 Writing scores:

Former ACT Writing Score

Concordant Current ACT Writing Score

2

1

3

7

4

10

5

12

6

16

7

19

8

23

9

30

10

32

11

34

12

36

(source: ACT.org)

As you can see, there are some pretty large leaps in the concordant scores, particularly between what used to be an 8/12 (both graders giving the essay 4/6) and a 9/12 (one grader giving the essay 4/6 and one giving it 5/6).

Now, when you look at the ACT’s percentile ranking for the new Writing test, it’s clear that a 23/36 on the Writing still places you in the 83rd percentile, which is not too shabby.

Score

Writing Percentile

36

99

35

99

34

99

33

99

32

99

31

98

30

98

29

97

28

95

27

95

26

93

25

90

24

88

23

83

 

But as one concerned parent pointed out:

“My DD also got a 35 composite and a 23 on writing. This sounds really low, but actually correlates to the 83rd percentile. But a 23 on the other sections correlate to percentiles in the 60s. So when colleges see a 23, will they also see the 83rd percentile, or will they assume it's much worse than it is?”

And as ACT, Inc. itself admitted in a January 2016 report,

"A casual observer may assume that a student who received a score of 32 on ACT English, ACT Composite, and ACT writing demonstrated consistent performance, but that would be incorrect."

To explain why, we need to look at the percentile ranks for all the sections, side by side. I've combined the most recent information ACT, Inc. has released for the Writing scores and for composite and section scores in the below chart:

 

Score

(/36)

Composite

Percentile

English

Percentile

Math

Percentile

Reading

Percentile

Science

Percentile

Writing

Percentile

36

99

99

99

99

99

99

35

99

99

99

99

99

99

34

99

98

99

98

99

99

33

99

97

98

97

98

99

32

98

95

97

95

97

99

31

96

93

96

92

96

98

30

95

92

95

89

95

98

29

92

90

93

86

94

97

28

90

88

91

84

92

95

27

87

85

88

81

90

95

26

83

82

84

78

87

93

25

79

79

78

75

83

90

24

74

74

73

71

77

88

23

68

69

67

66

70

83

For a refresher what percentiles rankings mean, read our guide to percentiles and score ranking on the ACT.

 

As you can see, there is a pretty big discrepancy between a 23 on the Writing (which places you at or above 83 percent of all test takers) and a 23 on any of the other sections (which only places you at or above 66-70 percent of all test takers). Here's a graph that illustrates this contrast even further:

body_actwritingsepoct2015.png(source: ACT.org) 

That jagged purple line to the left, lagging behind all the other section scores? That's the Writing scores for the September and October 2015 ACT.

Because of this discrepancy, ACT, Inc. warns against comparing scores on the Writing test directy to scores on the other sections of the ACT. Quoted verbatim:

"However, the new writing test combines the four domain scores, which are also reported to students, into an overall summary score on the 1–36 scale, making comparisons with other scores much more tempting. Perhaps too tempting!"

What’s particularly weird is ACT, Inc.'s explanation of this scoring difference. In the same article in which the graph appears, the writers stated that it made sense that there was more variation in writing scores because it was just one question. True enough, but the rest of their explanation left me baffled:

"Therefore, the writing test does have significantly greater variation than other scores because it is a single task, evaluated by raters using a 6-point interval scale, while other ACT tests are comprised of 40 to 75 questions."

One of the big changes with the new ACT essay is that the essay graders aren’t giving essays a holistic score any more - two graders are giving each essay four domain scores out of six, for total domain scores out of twelve. Which means that the essay is really evaluated out of a 48 point raw score - not entirely dissimilar to the rest of the sections.

So where does the score out of 36 come from? How is it being equated from the sum of the domain scores (which would be out of 48)? Well, according to ACT, Inc.:

"The new writing scale score (1–36) is a nonlinear transformation of the sum of the two 1–to–6 rater scores on four domain scores (8–48)."

But while ACT, Inc. released a preliminary chart for how this would work for the Preparing for the ACT 2015-2016 practice test, it appears, as I noted earlier, that the equating may be changing from test to test. Alas, it does not appear that a copy of the equating chart is sent out with the score report, so students have no way of knowing how the score out of 36 was arrived at.

Without transparency about the process, it’s understandable why some students are confused and upset.

 

body_studentsconfusedandupset.jpgLifeless Face #038, by Nottsexminer, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped and resized from original.

This hinge is just as upset as you. If not more so! Look at that face.

 

UPDATE: More Changes to ACT Writing Ahead

Just one year after ACT, Inc. completely overhauled the ACT Writing test, the scoring for the test is changing yet again. As of September 2016, the ACT Writing Test will no longer be scored on a scale of 1-36. Instead, students will receive a Writing score on a scale of 2-12 that is the average of all four of their domain scores (Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Organization, and Language Use), which are also each scored on a scale of 2-12.

In addition, there are some "minor changes" to the wording of the prompt that removed the necessity of discussing all three perspectives in your essay. Here's a look at what the ACT essay task looked like up through June 2016:

Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the conflict between public health and individual freedom. In your essay, be sure to:

  • analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
  • state and develop your own perspective on the issue
  • explain the relationship between your perspective and those given

Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.

 

And here's what it'll look like from September 2016 onwards. I've bolded the relevant change below.

 Write a unified, coherent essay about the conflict between public health and individual freedom. In your essay, be sure to:

  • clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
  • develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
  • organize your ideas clearly and logically
  • communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English

Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of those given, in partial agreement, or completely different.

 

ACT, Inc. announced the changes to the Writing test would go into effect September 2016 as part of ACT, Inc.’s effort to “reduce confusion among users.” As stated in both the official press release and in the FAQs about the Writing section, the reason for the scoring change was due to the larger differences between the scoring of the Writing test and the English, Math, Reading, and Science subject scores.

"Students assumed that the scores on the 1-36 scale meant the same thing from one subject test to another. We recognize that this is a logical assumption, but it is not a correct assumption" (source: ACT Writing FAQs).

The formal announcement of the changes to the ACT Writing test scoring occurred June 28, 2016; however, these changes didn’t come entirely out of nowhere. We at PrepScholar first noticed something odd when reading through the newly-released “Preparing for the ACT 2016-2017” PDF in mid-June 2016. Here's what it says on page 8, under the discussion of the ACT Writing Test:

You will receive a total of five scores for this test: a single subject-level writing score reported on a scale of 2–12, and four domain scores based on an analytic scoring rubric. The four domain scores are: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

Note: The subject score is the rounded average of the four domain scores.

On page 62, further information was given on how to calculate your ACT Writing score for the practice test included in the PDF:

body_ACTwriting12.pngSo other than Step 2 (which on the real ACT will involve adding the two essay graders' scores on each rubric area together, rather than just multiplying each area score by two), this domain-score-averaging process is how the ACT Writing test will be scored starting September 2016.

 

What Does This Mean For You?

At this point, many colleges are aware of the issues ACT, Inc. had with the score release of the new ACT Writing. As Boston College states on its admissions website, "ACT has notified us that delivery of scores this year will be delayed due to their implementation of an enhanced design to the Writing portion of the test.” Plus, by now most college application deadlines for Fall 2016 have passed, so whether or not the scores were released in time is kind of a moot point.

But what if you're applying to colleges next year, or are still worried about a low Writing score? What can you do about it?

 

Option 1: Order Hand-Scoring

Some students have resorted to ordering hand-scoring for their essays to see if it affects their scores (since ACT will only send colleges the new score if it is higher). In the case of at least one student, this was a success – the re-score took a Writing score of 22 (80th percentile) up to a 28 (95th percentile).

Because hand-scoring for the essay is so expensive ($50.00), it might only be worth doing if you believe that you really did receive someone else’s scores in error (i.e. if your Writing score is >6 points different from what you expected), or if the subscores don’t seem to correlate to your writing score out of 36 (e.g. subscores of all 10s, writing score of 11/36). Unfortunately, this means that some students will be at a disadvantage, because fee waivers do not apply to hand-scoring. You do get refunded the fee if a scoring error is found, but the initial investment of $50 may still be something that economically disadvantaged students don’t want to risk (if there is no score difference).

 

Option 2: Re-take ACT Writing in September 2016

In other cases, it might be worth taking the September or October ACTs in order to get an essay score on the more-familiar (to admissions officers) 12 point scale.

I would strongly urge against depending on either of these test dates if you're applying early decision or early action for most schools, given the score reporting delays that were rampant last year. If you're applying regular decision, though, taking the September or October ACT Writing test could have a positive affect on your application, since a lower Writing score won't look quite as discrepant against the rest of your ACT scores. Now that ACT Writing is scored out of 12, rather than also being out of 36, schools will be less likely to compare your Writing score directly to your ACT English, Math, Reading, Science, and composite scores, and give a sideeye to any huge discrepancies.

 

Option 3: Wait It Out

For many students, however, the lower-than-expected writing scores are just a byproduct of the way the new ACT Writing section is normed. Take heart, though – many schools already view standardized test essays with a skeptical eye. As the National Council of Teachers of English has noted, “With respect to writing ability, the ACT's figures indicate at best that students who do well on the test can perform the writing tasks required on the test.” It's unlikely that the ACT's updated September 2016 scoring system is going to do anything to dispel this skeptical attitude.

With the SAT essay becoming optional as of March 2016, it’s likely that fewer and fewer schools will care about the Writing section at all. And if you’re really worried about a low ACT Writing score, make sure to blow admissions officers away with a great personal statement to showcase your real writing skills.

 

What Should You Do Now?

If you want to retake the ACT to increase your Writing score, you'll need to make sure you completely understand the new prompts, what the rubric looks like, and how scoring works. Definitely make sure to check out our articles on how to get a perfect score on the ACT essay and how to write an ACT essay, step by step.

Are you within three months of the date you took the ACT and want to get your essay re-scored? You're in luck! Find out all about how hand-scoring works here.

Curious about what the difference is between test information release and hand scoring? Get the details on what TIR is and why you might want to order it in this article.

 

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.



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