Students work on a practice ACT test in this 2011 file photo. (AP Photo/The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)
Many students are in an uproar over a change to the ACT that has yielded what they call inexplicably low scores on the essay section of the nation’s most widely used college admission test.
Controversy erupted soon after the ACT introduced a revised essay-writing task in September that is being graded for the first time on the same 36-point scale as the rest of the test. Counselors across the country are complaining that many of their top students, who routinely earn marks higher than 30 on other parts of the ACT, are getting writing scores in the low-to-mid 20s.
“I know these kids well,” said Michele Hernandez, a college counselor based in Vermont. “There’s no way they should be getting scores that low on the writing. It’s obviously out of whack.”
Some students dissatisfied with their writing scores have discovered a solution: They can pay ACT $50 to re-score their essay. Few take this step, but those who do will get their re-scoring fee refunded if ACT revises the score upward, ACT spokesman Ed Colby said.
One Rhode Island student took the ACT in September, getting a 19 on the writing section and 30s on the rest of the test. “He’s a pretty good writer,” one of this student’s parents said. “I thought the 19 was odd.” The student asked for a re-score and was rewarded with a huge bump, to 31. There was no explanation for what the parent called a “very dramatic” change. “I was a little disconcerted.”
This parent and some affected students spoke with The Washington Post on condition of anonymity to maintain their privacy in the college application process.
Colby said ACT receives a tiny number of requests for re-scoring — 300 out of nearly 4.3 million tests administered in the last school year. “It’s a very small number of students who use it, and most of them do not receive a score change,” he said.
ACT officials acknowledge that essay-writing scores are trending lower than scores in English, reading, math and science, but they say that scores in one subject aren’t meant to be directly comparable to those in another.
“We urge students to understand that a particular score on the ACT Writing Test doesn’t mean the same thing as a score on any of the other ACT tests,” Colby said. “And colleges understand this.”
[ACT’s college admission testing grows, but scores stagnate]
The ACT essay is an optional 40-minute writing exercise offered after 2 hours and 55 minutes of multiple-choice assessment in English, reading, math and science. Before September, the ACT gave students 30 minutes to compose an essay taking a position on a given issue, with the writing graded on a scale of 2 to 12. The new essay requires students to “develop an argument that puts their own perspective in dialogue with others” in response to a contemporary issue. A sample topic on the ACT website is the influence of “intelligent machines.”
Many colleges don’t require the essay for students who take the ACT. But a number of selective schools, from Harvard and Princeton to the University of California, do require it. Typically, more than half of all ACT test-takers answer the essay question. The essay score doesn’t factor into the overall composite score, which is often considered the most crucial takeaway from an admissions test.
One 16-year-old from the suburbs of Chicago said he took the test in October and got a 36 on each of the four required portions of the ACT. Those top marks ordinarily would be cause for celebration. But his writing score, he said, was a 23.
“I was expecting in the very worst case maybe a high 20 score,” he said. “It really took me aback. It bothers me.”
A 17-year-old who grew up in Washington, D.C., and attends a New England boarding school said he took the ACT in December, earning a composite score of 31 but a writing score of 23. “I was surprised,” he said. “I consider myself a pretty good writer.”
Responding to numerous questions, ACT officials recently published an explanation of their essay scoring. It said that two trained graders read each essay, using a rubric to assign points in four categories: ideas and analysis; development and support; organization; and language use and conventions. A third reader can step in to settle differences.
The ACT analysis showed that grades varied significantly among the five subjects on the overall test. The top 5 percent of students scored 32 or higher in English and reading. But they scored 30 or higher in math and science. And their scores were lower still in writing: 27 to 28 or higher.
Students “are only beginning to get experience with the new writing prompt,” the analysis said. “Research suggests that as students become increasingly familiar with the new prompt, scores may increase and users will better understand the distribution of scores and how they correspond to the percentiles and predicted success in college.”
The controversy comes amid flux in the national testing landscape. The ACT recently overtook the SAT as the nation’s most widely used test, though the SAT remains more popular in the Washington region and many other markets. The College Board is scheduled to debut a new version of its SAT next month, when for the first time since 2005, the SAT’s essay will be optional and the overall top score will be 1600. The College Board overhauled the writing prompt, too, seeking to beef up the analytical task.
[SAT to drop essay requirement and return to top score of 1600 in redesign]
How much colleges care about the ACT essay or the SAT essay is an open question.
Of 539 schools that the College Board tracks, 426 will neither require or recommend that students take the SAT essay when the new version debuts. Among them are the public flagship universities of Virginia and Maryland, as well as Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania in the Ivy League. Several highly regarded schools, including Columbia, U-Penn. and U-Va., also are dropping ACT essay requirements. U-Md. said its longstanding policy has been to not require the ACT essay.
[U-Penn. and others drop an essay requirement for standardized tests]
John McLaughlin, an associate dean of admissions at U-Penn., said any essay scores that are submitted will get evaluated along with the rest of an application. He said most admitted students who took the ACT have composite scores of 32 or higher. Asked about the flap over the ACT essay and perceived scoring mismatches, he said: “I can understand the unease.”
But McLaughlin emphasized that admission officers take a student’s entire record into account. “It’s our job to get beyond these numbers.”
This item has been updated.
The SAT, now the No. 2 college test, pushes to reclaim supremacy
College Board releases preview of new SAT exam questions
ACT president: ‘Relax. Tests don’t define us, nor do they determine our future.’
The ACT Writing section (new as of September 2015) is the only optional part of the ACT. However, optional does not mean unnecessary. A number of colleges do require it to be included with the rest of your ACT scores as part of their application process (if you want to check if your dream school is one of them, you can use the ACT’s own College Writing Test Requirements search tool to find out). If any of the schools you’re considering require you to take the ACT Writing Section, you definitely need to know what constitutes a good ACT Writing Score.
Start improving your ACT writing score (and everything else) today with Magoosh!
Note: This post has been updated to reflect the changes announced for the September 2016 ACT and beyond, released by the ACT in June 2016.
ACT Essay Grader
Before we talk about good ACT Writing scores, it’s important to know what score you’re working with.
If you’re coming to this post after taking your first ACT practice test, you might be wondering how the heck you’re supposed to even grade your essay. You’re thinking, “What even IS my ACT Essay score?”
To start, let your essay sit for a day or two before grading it (it’s helpful to get some distance). Then, follow the official scoring rubric from ACT, and ask a trusted friend/teacher/parent to do the same. Be as objective as possible as you grade—you won’t do yourself any favors by inflating your score!
Then, use our handy ACT Essay Grading tool to find your score:
ACT Writing Test Scorer
Click the button below to get started:
All right, now you know what your ACT essay score is. Let’s try to figure out how your essay ranks.
What’s Considered a Good ACT Writing Score?
This is always a tricky question, because the easy answer is that you should try to get the highest score you can. But that isn’t really helpful, is it?
Of course, a lot depends on the schools to which you apply (see ACT scores for the top 100 universities to learn more). Generally, the more selective the school, the higher your score should be to be competitive. Those universities that require the ACT Writing will almost always have an average score range on their admissions website, so make sure you do your research. Most schools do not provide a cut-off score, so theoretically a below-average score will not eliminate you from being considered for admission. Then again, it won’t help you either.
Okay, But Really…I Want Numbers!
All right, all right, let’s talk numbers.
What’s a good ACT Writing score? First off, remember that the ACT Essay is now scored from 1-6 in four categories by two graders. This gives you four scores from 2-12. You then receive a final ACT Essay score from 2-12 that is the average of these four scores. This is the score you will be reporting to colleges. For more detail on how the essay is scored, make sure you check out Rachel’s article on ACT Essay scores.
This is a change from September 2015 to June 2016, when the ACT essay scoring scale was 1-36. If the old scoring scale applied to you, you should have received notice from the ACT about how to convert your score to the new 2-12 range. The ACT also has a good resource to help you convert 2015-2016 ACT essay scores to 2016-2017 essay scores. To understand your percentile, you can use this “Norms Chart”.
That’s a Lot of Numbers… So What Is a Good ACT Writing Score?
If you took the test after September 2016, you’re using the 2-12 scale. And what’s a good ACT Writing score now, using this scale? Shoot for a minimum of 8 on the essay. This will be enough to not raise any eyebrows amongst college admissions officers. For extremely competitive schools, aim for a score of 10+.
ACT Writing: Essay Percentiles
If you’re still wondering just how good your scores are, here’s the breakdown for ACT essay scores and percentiles:
As you can see from this table, the mean, or average, score on the ACT Writing section falls slightly below 7. It’s a good idea to aim for the 75th percentile, so in this case a good ACT writing score would be an 8 or above (16 or above on the old ACT). A 10 or above would put you in the 97th percentile, which is great! If you aspire to Ivy League or other highly-selective schools, a 10 is the threshold you should try your best to reach to be safe.
How Have People Been Doing on the New ACT Writing?
Last year, the Washington Post reported that ACT Writing scores after the essay change were lower than people expected. And honestly, this is exactly why the ACT decided to go back to a separate 2-12 scale: too many students were comparing their essay scaled score from 1-36 to their multiple choice scaled scores from 1-36, when in reality the percentiles were very different.
If you are ever concerned that your essay score is inaccurate, however, you can ask for your essay to be re-scored. The $50 fee for the re-score will be refunded if you do get a higher score.
So what’s the takeaway from all of this? Really, a few key points:
- Research the schools you plan to apply to, and see which of them require the ACT Writing test.
- At the least, shoot for an 8+ overall score for a “good” ACT Writing score.
- A score of 10+ is an ideal score for applications to selective schools.
- If you believe your essay has been mis-scored, you may request a re-score for a fee.
- Don’t panic!
This post was originally published in February, 2016 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
About Elizabeth Peterson
Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!
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