ACT Essay Needs More than a Score Change

By Sam Rosensohn

ACT Jettisons 1-36 Score Range to Clarify the Puzzling Essay

In a bid to make the confounding ACT essay less confusing to students, ACT will swap the 1-36 score range to a 2-12 score range starting in September 2016. Drawing down the numbers on the scorecard is not the answer. What’s needed to erase the confusion is to clearly state what the essay wants students to express.

ACT announced yesterday that the writing test itself will remain unchanged. The essays will still be scored based on the same rubric’s four domains: 1) ideas and analysis, 2) development and support, 3) organization, 4) language use and conventions. This is what I believe has created the largest amount of confusion among students. The overwhelming majority of students did not know the specific way the test wanted students to analyze the presented topic, nor did they know the best way to organize the three perspectives and then explain how their position related to the three perspectives.

For starters, up until this month, ACT did not print in its book, The Real ACT Prep Guide, what the new essay was. It had the old essay printed in the book, so most kids encountered the new essay cold. If the essay were similar to what students were asked to do in school—write a position paper, an evidence-based essay, or a persuasive essay—the new essay would not have been the curve ball that resulted in exceedingly low scores.

Back in February of this year, The Washington Post pointed out how low those essay scores were and the reaction from students.

How then to Fix the Low Writing Scores

The fix, according to us at CPP, is not in the new score range, but rather to understand what the essay scorers are looking for. We suggest students carefully review this ACT rubric to grasp how to pick up points in the different scoring domains. One of the biggest surprises is that students are asked to generate an argument that examines implications, complexities, tensions, underlying values, assumptions, and nuance. As most students did not know what they were to address, they lost points on the Ideas and Analysis category. Once this is pointed out to students, it generally takes them a little while to get the hang of it since they’ve been taught to “not sit on the fence,” but rather to take a position and make a compelling case.

Have your student review the rubric carefully, and if he/she does not have a copy of an essay to work from, here is the essay made available on the ACT site. Know what the scorers are looking for and then practice writing a few essays under time; your scores are likely to go up, regardless of whether the maximum score is a 12 or a 36.