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ACT Explains their Essay Scores

We’ve talked about the new ACT essay and its associated issues and confusions. ACT has released a document hoping to clear up the misconceptions, titled “ACT Research Explains New ACT Test Writing Scores and Their Relationship to Other Test Scores.”

I don’t want to ruin this delightful saga for you, but you should know going on: there is no relationship. Beyond that, ACT says there’s no relationship between individual subject scores, either.

ACT addresses the discrepancy between the Writing scores and the other scores by acknowledging that there is a difference in scores, but that concern about that fact is rooted in a lack of communication about how scores should be understood.

 

“It is true that scores on the writing test were on average 3 or more points lower than the Composite and English scores for the same percentile rank during September and October 2016. Some students may have had even larger differences between scores. This is not unexpected or an indication of a problem with the test. However, the expectation that the same or similar scores across ACT tests indicate the same or similar level of performance does signal that ACT needs to better communicate what test scores mean and how to appropriately interpret the scores.” 

Much of the article reads as an attempt by ACT to debunk the idea that their individual scores are very useful. For example, “the difference in scores across tests does not provide a basis for evaluating strengths and weaknesses….” The important thing to look at, they maintain, are the percentiles, because scores don’t really translate across subject lines. A 25 in Reading is not a 25 in Math, and you were silly to think, because they’re reported on the same scale and created by the same people, that there was any relationship between them. (OK, so they don’t actually call anyone silly. But they do say that “[t]ests are not designed to ensure that a score of 25 means the same thing on ACT Math as it does for ACT Science or Reading.” Check out that skilled usage of the passive voice there!)

There have always been some differences between the scores in different sections. Anyone who looks at a percentile chart will notice that. For the most part, they’re not huge.  But “even larger differences are found when comparing percentiles between the new ACT subject-level writing score and the other ACT scores. For example, a score of 30 on the ACT writing test places that same student at the 98th percentile, a full 9% higher than the reading score [of 30.] Similarly, an ACT subject-level writing score of 22 is over about 10 percentiles about the Composite or other ACT scores.”

Why change over to the new scale at all then? Don’t you think that the new scale might, you know, encourage those comparisons? The ACT admits the 1-36 score for the Writing “[makes] comparisons with the other scores much more tempting. Perhaps too tempting!”

ACT’s insistence on talking about the test like something that sprang into being all by itself and behaves in self-determining ways is giving me robot overlord concerns.

 

Didn’t they… design it? Didn’t they decide how the scoring would work? Unless the ACT test itself has become sentient and begun making demands, this doesn’t make any sense. Treating the scores as if they exist as something other than a product of a series of human decisions is absurd.

They put everything on the same scale. They’ve admitted that having things on an apparently identical scale invites comparison, and they’ve also said that “[c]omparisons of ACT scores across different tests should not be made on the basis of the actual score…” Oh, OK. What?

If the actual scores don’t really help in making comparisons (which is what standardized tests are for, after all – making comparisons), and everyone should just look at the percentiles, then why do we need the 1-36 scale at all?

In the document, ACT points out multiple times that this kind of variation is common on many tests. That doesn’t change the fact that they changed the Writing score to make it look like the other scores (except lower) which has caused confusion and will continue to do so. The math that turns an 8 into a 23 and a 9 into a 30 is not intuitive nor set in stone, and if they wanted to correlate a given Writing score and a Math or English score to the same percentile, they could.

Beyond that, as the ACT admits, “each test score includes some level of imprecision,” and that margin of error is considerably larger for the Writing test. They explain that “a score of 20 on ACT writing would indicate that there is a two-out-of-three chance that the student’s true score would be between 16 and 24.” (Put another way, this means there is a 33% chance that your “true score,” whatever that means, is more than 4 points away from what shows up on your report.”) The ACT cautions against using the Writing score on its own to make decisions, suggesting using the ELA score instead – an average of Reading, English and Writing. But if the Writing score on its own isn’t a useful metric, then perhaps it shouldn’t be reported?

Further complicating all of this, the ACT blames some of the low scoring on students’ unfamiliarity with the new version of the test: “students are only beginning to get experience with the new writing prompt. Research suggests that as students become increasingly familiar with the new prompt, scores may increase[.]”

The ACT claims that the essay tests “argumentative writing skills that are essential for college and career success.” If that were actually the case, familiarity with the test wouldn’t matter. Unless the ACT is arguing that as students become more familiar with this particular aspect of the test, they will also become more prepared for college. I suggest that those two factors – college readiness and ACT essay scores – don’t have a relationship, either.

Author: Audrey Hazzard, Master-Level Tutor

Class of 2018 Game Plan

As the 2016-2017 school year winds to a close, it’s time to consider a test prep plan for students in the Class of 2018. Most students do not complete the required coursework to begin successfully preparing for the ACT or SAT before the end of sophomore year. To that end, we suggest not taking your first practice test until the May or June after sophomore year. (Please note that we have suspended SAT pretesting until June.)

We offer free practice testing nearly every Saturday at both our Mission and Leawood offices. The practice test is an important first step – please don’t skip it! The earliest we suggest taking the practice test is May or June, but for the deadline-oriented people wondering how long they can wait, here’s a handy guide.

ACT deadlines

SAT deadlines

In order to use this tool, you’ll have to pick an official test date (or two – it’s not a bad idea to have a backup available) that will work well for you. Consider sports schedules, exam schedules, family or religious obligations, travel plans, etc. when deciding which test date will work best for you. Preparation schedules are targeted at a specific date; preparing for a test date you end up being unable to take can be a big setback.

The key is to take your practice test at least three full months before your selected official test date. You may or may not need three months to prep, but the sooner you (and we!) have a practice test score on file, the sooner we can work together to come up with a plan and a schedule that works for you.

If you haven’t begun visiting colleges or thinking at all about what kinds of colleges you might want to attend, this summer isn’t a bad time to start. It’s important to have a target score to work towards as you begin prep, and that target score is largely determined by the colleges and universities to which you’re applying. A college list will also help you determine whether to take the optional ACT or SAT essay portion, and whether you’ll need to take any SAT subject tests.

Here’s a suggested timeline to get your planning started.

Suggested Schedule for the Class of 2018

May 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the September ACT.
  • Plan summer college visits and begin a college list. Take notes as you research and visit!
  • Begin preliminary scholarship searches.

June 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the October ACT or SAT.
  • The October SAT may be a good date for students who also want to prepare for the PSAT. The content of the PSAT and SAT, while not identical, is similar enough that preparing once for both tests makes sense!

July 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the November SAT.
  • Think about courses and extra-curriculars for Junior year. Plan to take the most challenging courses you can be successful in, and look for opportunities to take leadership roles in activities.

August 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the December ACT or SAT.
  • If you haven’t already, make a solid timeline for Junior year with deadlines, goals, college visits, test dates, etc.

September 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the January SAT.
  • Make a good impression on your teachers. You’ll be asking them for recommendations in a few months.
  • ACT – September 10th.

October 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the February ACT.
  • SAT – October 1st.
  • PSAT – October 15th and 19th
  • ACT – October 22nd.

November 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the March SAT.
  • Plan college visits for winter break.
  • SAT – November 5th.

December 2016

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the April ACT. All public school students in Missouri take a statewide administration of the ACT on April 19th, so begin preparing for that exam now if you attend public school in Missouri.
  • SAT – December 3rd.
  • ACT – December 10th.

January 2017

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the May SAT.
  • (Consider whether you’ll need to use the May SAT administration for Subject tests.)
  • Begin thinking about which teachers you want to ask for recommendation letters.
  • Begin thinking about summer plans, like projects, jobs or internships.
  • SAT – January 28th.

February 2017

  • Take a practice test, especially if you’re targeting the June ACT or SAT or if you haven’t done so yet. If you haven’t begun preparing for the ACT or SAT yet, now is the time! You’ll have a chance to retake in the fall if necessary, but that shouldn’t be your first test.
  • Plan spring break college visits.
  • ACT – February 11th.

March 2017

  • Keep refining your college list.
  • Once you have a good idea of which teachers you need to ask (based on your college list) begin asking for recommendation letters.
  • SAT – March 11th.

April 2017

  • Missouri public school students take the ACT April 19th.
  • Review for AP Exams and SAT Subject tests if you’re taking them.
  • ACT – April 8th.

May 2017

  • AP Exams
  • SAT – May 6th. (This is a good date for Subject tests!)

ACT Essay Score Issues

Have you noticed a discrepancy between your ACT multiple-choice scores and your Writing score? You’re not alone. Since the new essay debuted in September, students have been frustrated and alarmed by low essay scores. The concordance between the old and new essay scores equates an old 8/12 with a new 23/36, but an old 9/12 with a 30/36 – a huge gap. Many students who are scoring in the 30s on their multiple choice sections are seeing essay scores in the low to mid 20s, and they are understandably concerned.

The Washington Post spoke to the parents of a student who took the ACT in September. He received “a 19 on the writing section and 30s on the rest of the test.” When the student requested a rescore of his essay, the score increased – to a 31. Based on the new essay scoring, that jump – from a 19 to a 31 – represents a change from the 63rd percentile to the 98th.

Wait, you’re thinking, a 19 is the 63rd percentile? Yes, on the Writing, it is. For comparison, a 19 on English is the 45th percentile. On the Science section, a 19 is in the 40th.

Top Tier Admissions wrote of the new ACT essay scoring, “Imagine a teacher giving a test where a 70% was the highest score out of a thousand students, but then deciding not to curve the test. That is what is happening right now on this new writing section.”

Criticism of the new ACT essay has been widespread, so if you’re feeling concern or even shock about your essay score, know that you’re not alone. Resist the temptation to compare your 1-36 essay scores with the 1-36 scores in the other sections: look at the percentiles, instead. If you’re considering retaking the ACT just to boost your essay, check in with your admissions reps at your top-choice colleges first. More colleges, including Tufts, Penn, Brown, and Swarthmore, are opting not to require the essay portion of the exam at all.

Even if your college does require it, it may not be worth retaking the whole exam if you’re pleased with the rest of your scores. Talking with your admissions representative may help you determine how important that score is – or isn’t.