For a moment, the ACT stood ascendant as the college admissions test to beat, the safe harbor for all students and schools fearful of that scary, new SAT. The masterminds in Iowa City outflanked the College Board at every turn to finally usurp the throne.
…Then came the Enhanced ACT Writing Test in September 2015.
Changing the ACT Writing assignment was not, on its face, a bad idea. The ACT’s ongoing positioning as a state standards test has triggered the inclusion of lots of data points of more value to school administrators than college admissions officers. At least ACT continues to test persuasive writing, which is more than can be said for the competition.
Changing the ACT Writing Test in mid-stream, as it were, made little sense. Traditionally, major test changes are introduced in the spring in deference to the college admissions cycle. Not only are changes often accompanied by delayed score reporting, but the revisions may impede fair comparisons to tests taken earlier in the cycle.
Both of these easily avoided problems have befallen the Enhanced ACT Writing Test and all who have had the misfortune to deal with it. Many students depending on September ACT scores for early admission or action were frustrated by reporting delays. Even worse, Enhanced Writing scores seemed dramatically lower than previous Writing scores among students who had taken both.
With hope, ACT has learned its lesson regarding when exactly to release significant revisions. How to release them is another story entirely, one that includes a moral we don’t often hear: ACT blew it. More specifically, ACT completely mishandled the implementation of the Enhanced ACT Writing Test to the extent that colleges may stop using those scores for admissions purposes.
At issue are the unexpectedly low Writing scores assigned in September and October. These Writing scores, now on the familiar 1-36 scale rather than the 2-12 formerly shared by the SAT and ACT, often stood out as significantly lower than a student’s other section scores. Why were scores so low? We considered a combination of two important factors:
1. ACT only released two sample prompts and one set of anchor papers to familiarize test takers with this new assignment and scoring rubric. To describe such meager training materials as insufficient would be an understatement.
2. ACT most likely failed to effectively train scorers in quick and accurate scoring of these new student essays.
While the first reason still stands as a major failure in the world of standardized testing, the second reason may not be entirely accurate. Surely the scorers fumbled in terms of speedy scoring, but they may have been trained well to implement the new scoring rubric. The real problem, which I just noticed while reviewing the newest ACT National Ranks data, lies in the percentiles.
Basically, the 1-36 scale for the Writing Test bears little resemblance to the same scale applies to the other sections of the ACT. While the scale varies from section to section, the Composite ranks set certain expectations: 33 is 99th percentile, 28 is 90th percentile, 20 is 50th percentile, and 17 is not a score you want to send to a college!
But look at how different percentiles are for ACT Writing scores: 33 is still 99th percentile, but 28 is 95th percentile. 17is actually 52th percentile, instead of 20, which is 68th percentile. No wonder everyone is confused by their lower scores.
Moving to the 1-36 scale made sense for ACT, but only if the scale can be interpreted consistently across all sections. The test maker should have recognized its failure early; after all, the ranks for all the other sections as well as the composite are based on a sample size of 5,569,466 over three years. The Writing norms, on the other hand, are based on “one special study,” at least for now.
What can you do? If you’re freaking out about your ACT Writing score, take another look at the percentiles. While you’re at it, contact the colleges you’re applying to and ask if they even care about the Writing Test anymore. Don’t be surprised if they say they don’t…