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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.

PSAT Results

PSAT scores are finally released, about a month after they were initially expected. While some students are still having difficulty accessing their scores, those who have been able to get in have been confronted with scores that look quite different from previous PSATs.

Total PSAT scores are between 320 and 1520. The total score is a combination of the Math and “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,” each of which is scored between 160 and 760. While these score ranges are not the same as the SAT – the upper and lower limits are shifted down by 40 points – College Board maintains that they are basically predictive of a student’s performance on the SAT.

The Selection Index will appear lower this year due to the new scoring ranges. For the class of 2016 (the last class to take the “old” PSAT), the highest possible score was a 240, and state-by-state NMSQT/PSAT cutoffs for semifinalists varied from 202 to 225. This year’s maximum Selection Index is a 228. Estimates of this year’s cutoffs vary considerably, and it might be easy to obsess over all of the possibilities if you believe your score is in the range for National Merit consideration.

Percentiles have also become more complicated on this year’s reports. Online score reports will include both percentiles – a “Nationally Representative Sample Percentile” and the “User Percentile.” The Nationally Representative sample will generally be higher, and provides the score as a percentile of a “nationally representative” group of 11th grade students. This measurement demonstrates how a student’s score compares to all high school juniors in the United States, including students who “don’t typically take the test.” The Nationally Representative Sample Percentile is the one that will appear on a students’ hard-copy report. The User Percentile is the percentile rank we’re more familiar with, comparing the scores of students who actually took the test. The User Percentile is only available online.

With so much uncertainty remaining, what useful information can we gain from the PSAT? If you’re still debating which test to focus on – the ACT or SAT – your PSAT score can help you decide. If you do decide to move forward with the SAT, a more thorough review of your PSAT can help. When your hard copy score report is released, take the time to review your test booklet for additional insights and make a study plan for the SAT.