Issues Around ACT Writing Scores: Cause for Concern or Proceed as Normal?

Essay-WriterThe test prep experts at Top Tier Admissions recently called into question some serious issues around the new ACT writing section, mainly that students are scoring significantly lower on it. As they’ve noted from personal experience, some of their highest-achieving students “who routinely score a 35 or 36 composite” are now seeing Writing scores in the 20-25 range. 

Our students, too, have experienced some unhappy surprises when it comes to ACT writing scores. And as many respectable schools move to make the essay optional, it’s obvious colleges are noticing something as well.  But is there something off with the new ACT scoring rubric? Or do students just not write as well as they (and their parents) think they do? 

There are a few things to note. With the new ACT essay, the scoring scale has changed. Our Director of Materials, Robert Hay (and the author of all of our test prep books), acknowledges that the scaled scores are lower than they were: “Previously, on the 2-12 point scale, a 7 was around the 50th percentile. On the new four-category scale, getting four sevens would give you a 22 Writing score, which is the 80th percentile. The 50th percentile is a 17 Writing, which would be around a 5 to 6 in each category. That’s certainly a big difference.” 

However, we may not want to jump to conclusions about the reason for this discrepancy. Some of our tutors have attributed this to the essay graders being unused to the new format or poorly trained. But that doesn’t matter, because the scaled score is meant to adjust for that anyway. If the readers are grading too low, the scaled score simply should push it higher.

Is it a “mistake”? It’s hard to say exactly because the ACT hasn’t released any documentation about their “norming” process for the new section (or at least not that we’ve seen) other than stating that norms were initially “based on one special study.” We suppose it’s possible that there is some sort of actual statistical error involved, but our guess is that, if that was the case, the ACT would have said something publicly by now. It’s also possible that the procedure worked perfectly and kids simply didn’t do as well on the essay as they’d expected. The new essay is testing different skills, so we shouldn’t expect the scores to be directly comparable, no matter the numbers.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that EVERYONE has lower scores than expected. Therefore it’s not a disadvantage, it’s just a global lowering of the numbers. Colleges see all the same numbers we do. They will see lower writing scores for all students, so it shouldn’t particularly harm or benefit anyone.

So try your best not to freak out and proceed as normal with your ACT (and SAT) test preparation. Best of luck on any upcoming exams!


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