ACT Presses Reset On Essay

Marshall Findlay speaking to student

This article was written by Marshall Findlay of Applerouth Tutoring Services and originally published on the Applerouth Blog.

If you needed another reason to discredit the value of the ACT essay in college admissions, here’s another one: the ACT recently announced that it will revert back to the 2-12 scale for its essays in the 2016-17 year.

The old SAT and ACT essays, while required by most institutions, never had the same value in admissions as did the other sections of the test. Admissions officers used the SAT/ACT essay score (or the essay itself) in conjunction with the student’s personal essays. If a student scored a 2 out of 12 on the ACT essay – where he or she needed to show identification prior to writing the essay – but submitted a glowing, witty, nuanced personal essay, that could indicate that the second essay might not have been written by the student. Apart from that function, the essay did not have much weight in the admissions decision. After all, how well can you demonstrate your writing and reasoning abilities in a 30-minute, hand-written essay on some hackneyed topic such as school dress codes?

The enhanced ACT writing section seemed to respond to the criticism that the essay only served as a plagiarism test and not as a robust assessment of critical thinking and reasoning skills. Its sample essay seemed to divert from the dull high school topics of the past and instead focused on current events – automated machines, employment, and human progress. Moreover, students were required to nuance the various perspectives, not merely picking a side and giving three supporting – and often fictitious – examples. Finally, the new test would be placed on a 1-36 scale, setting it in the same range as the English, Math, Reading, and Science sections. Would colleges buy into this new, more robust essay and give it more weight in admissions decisions?

The first few iterations of the new essay were disastrous. Our tutor, whose initial score of 24 was increased to a 33 after he requested and paid for hand scoring, proved that a 24 and a 33 have the same value, depending on whether a student paid for a rescoring of the essay. As a result, a college could not differentiate between a 24 and a 33, since they could be written by two equally competent students, one of whom had $50 in her pocket while the other didn’t.

Furthermore, we saw the ambitious essay topics return back to the standard high school fare of yesteryear. Dress codes and cell phones in class are again the norm for the new ACT essay, a far cry from the topics we were led to expect.

Finally, and not surprisingly, the ACT has had to respond to problems with the curve for the 1-36 ACT Writing score. Whereas the middle 50% for English, Math, Reading, and Science has typically been around a 20, the Writing section saw its 50% far lower, around a 16 or 17. In other words, a student who scored a composite of a 20 with an essay score of a 17 would be solidly in the 50th percentile, even though it seems that he bombed the essay. Such confusion, labeled a “perceptual problem” by the ACT, led to the return to the 2-12 grading scale.

While the other components of the essay (timing, three perspectives, grading rubric) will remain the same, this decision to abandon the 1-36 scale is significant. More and more colleges are moving away from the SAT and ACT essays in admissions, either not requiring them or not recommending them for admissions. This step back seems to be the ACT’s acknowledgement that, for now, it will accept the purpose for which the admissions world intends the ACT essay: as a check against plagiarism.

When (or if) the ACT and the College Board amass enough data to show that the new essays are indeed predictive of college admissions, perhaps we will see another pitch for the essay. Until then, the ACT and College Board have a long way to go before convincing the higher-education world that the essays are valuable in decision-making, and students will want to check with their colleges about specific essay requirements. The College Board has a list of colleges and universities that require, recommend, or neither require nor recommend the essay. The ACT also reports on college preferences, and you can use their search function to get a better sense of your college’s requirements. If you don’t see your college on that list, they may be awaiting a final decision. Give the admissions office a call and see if you can get some clearer information.

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