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Breaking News on the ACT … Or is it Already Broken?

Breaking ACT news – the ACT quietly announced prior to the September 2015 test, that they would be changing the scoring on the writing section, but somewhere in the process, they have made a major scoring error that is drastically lowering students’ scores on the Writing section.

Rather than having a “Combined English/Writing” score as they have had in past years (which combined an essay score on a 12 point scale with a multiple choice grammar section into one score on a 36 scale), they are designating an entire section to “Writing” for those who sign up for the ACT with Writing.

As far as reporting (students have confusion on their September and October score reports), they still have the same Composite Score that averages the four sections (English, Math, Reading, Science) with NO writing. But then, for students who took the writing, they report a separate “Writing” score along with an English Language Arts score (ELA–a composite average of English, Reading AND Writing) and a STEM score (average of Math and Science). You can read more about the new rubric here: http://www.act.org/aap/pdf/Writing-Test-Scoring-Rubric.pdf.

We don’t object to a new rubric, but what the ACT folks did NOT say is that something would be terribly wrong with the scoring to the point that students who routinely score a 35 or 36 composite would suddenly be receiving scores in the 20-25 range (SAT equivalent 470-570) on the writing section.

In other words, all the ACT training and prep students took part in prior to taking the September and October tests did not deliver high writing results. Their composite scores may have been high, and their SAT writing section may have been 790, but this odd new writing section of the ACT is out of whack.

Why are we the only ones talking about this major scoring problem that will affect thousands of students this year?

It’s so early in the academic year that admissions officers have probably not noticed the discrepancy in scores, but our students certainly have. We noticed right away after we heard from our students who took the September and October ACT with Writing. Several of those students had composite scores of 35 or 36, but their writing scores were dramatically lower (20-25!). At first we thought the scale had been changed, but that is not the case we discovered upon investigating further with the ACT.

When we called the ACT it was the usual long endeavor. The main phone line was “busy” and not taking calls. We called through the learning accommodation line just to get a human and were then transferred twice before reaching a supervisor after a 20-minute hold time. Finally, the supervisor acknowledged that they in fact have been noticing that writing scores are lower (we added “by 250-300- SAT points”) and that students were asking for their writing section to be hand scored in reaction to the lower than normal scores (although because it’s an essay, it’s already hand scored).

We were surprised that the ACT supervisor could not comment on the “average” writing score relative to the average writing score on the “old” ACT. Our conclusion is that they have not done a proper job in norming this new section. 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.

The ACT says they have “moved away from a holistic grading model” and are now offering “a score for each of four writing domains: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization and language use.” We’re fine with a new rubric, but we object to not NORMING the scores so that they are comparable to past scores.

The long and short of it is that something is wrong with the ACT writing section scoring – we have seen too many of our high scoring students who routinely score 34-36 composites (and who on the SAT writing section score 750-800) who now out of the blue are receiving ACT scores in the low to mid 20’s, and that includes students who on the old ACT actually received “Combined English/Writing” scores in the 33-36 range.

There’s another key takeaway on the topic of the new scoring for the Writing section of the ACT. A student scoring 8/12 on the old scale for ACT scoring is given a 23 on the new scale, noted in the tables HERE BUT, a student with a 9/12 on the old scale is given a 30. The new scoring curve is very steep right at that point.

–Obtaining a 9 on the essay is essential!

–It’s a bizarre land where a score of 8 translates to a 23 and a score of 9 translates to a score of 30, but those are the scoring rules the ACT has put in place.

Dr. Michele Hernandez notes:

“When I worked in admissions at Dartmouth, had we noticed an issue like this, we would have called an emergency meeting and agreed to ‘throw out’ this writing score. But I don’t think colleges have even noticed the problem yet. For current seniors, it’s not even clear how to REPORT the new ACT with Writing as the Common App has a space for ‘Highest Combined English/Writing or Writing Subject Score’ but not a separate box for the ELA score.”

If the ACT does not adjust the scale to address this problem, we will have to advise our students to either take the ACT without the writing section (assuming that colleges will realize the error and simply not count the writing) or to take the SAT instead since the ACT’s scoring is flawed.

We hope that the ACT will step up and acknowledge the scoring problem and propose a solution before they lose market share to the SAT. Twisted, indeed, as the SAT is launching their new test this March 2016 to regain the market share the ACT with Writing has taken away.

Figure it out testing companies, and soon! Students’ time is precious and sorting out standardized test craziness is getting in the way of their pursuit of genuine scholarship.