ACT Research posts new article explaining New Essay scores

The ACT has very recently posted a new technical research article for constituents to explain and defend its scaled scores on the New Essay format that was introduced in September of 2015. The main points of the ACT Research paper are:

1. Based on the research studies and the September and October 2015 administrations of the ACT tests, the results indicate that the New Writing test has “similar reliability, precision, and difficulty as the previous test.”

2. The same percentile is associated with a Writing score that is on average 3 to 4 points lower than the ACT Composite or English score. For example, a student with a 34 Composite score (99th percentile) is likely to achieve, on average, a New Writing test score of 30 (98th percentile). Only five percent of students have a New Writing score that is 10 or more points below their Composite score. One large reason behind the lower scaled scores for the Writing is that the population taking the optional Writing test is a self-selected smaller and higher-scoring population.

3. The gap between successive Writing test scores is larger than expected. The ACT expands on this concern by explaining the SEM (standard error of measure) for Writing and the other sections of the test. There is a SEM of one point for the Composite, 2 points for the individual sections, and 4 points for the Writing test. The SEM can be illustrated with this example:

a. A Composite score of 30 means that the student has a 2 out of 3 chance that his true score is between a 29 and 31.

b. A Math score of 30 means that the student has a 2 out of 3 chance that his true Math score is between and 28 and 32.

c. A Writing score of 26 means that the student has a 2 out of 3 chance that his true Writing score is between 22 and 30.

The reason behind the much greater SEM for Writing is primarily that Writing is only one task (compared with 60 questions in Math, for example).

I personally saw one of my students drop from a 30 to a 22 Writing score and one from a 22 to a 16 Writing score based on their perception that the topic (business fashion) in the April, 2016 test was not familiar enough to create informed and detailed examples for support. Each of these students, however, dramatically improved his overall test scores and Composite score. The first achieved a 34 Composite and the second a 26 Composite. So both of these students were in the long tail of the SEM distribution, with Writing scores that were 10 or more points below their Composite scores.

4. “Research suggests that as students become increasingly familiar with the new prompt, scores may improve.”

5. “The ACT is working to improve communications with score users about limitations of different scales scores and to provide additional advice and support to minimize confusion and potential unintended consequences.”


Personal observations and recommendations regarding the ACT Writing test:

There have been several mainstream media pieces on the ACT Writing and the dismay of students with the lower scaled scores. One would hope that the admissions officers of colleges and universities are aware of these differences.

Interestingly, in a recent Linked-In tutoring forum, one of the active tutors reported that a local college counselor called around to various admissions officers to survey their awareness of some of the issues surrounding these ACT Writing scores. Most admissions personnel were NOT aware of any of these issues. So, this new ACT Research paper is timely, and Point #5 is important for the ACT to follow through with. Hopefully, admissions officers will become informed of these issues over this summer.

Last, anecdotal reports and the Washington Post article have suggested that when a student was unhappy with his New ACT Writing essay score and requested a re-scoring, most of the time, the re-scoring was higher. Given that the essay topics continue to vary greatly, and the successive scores continue to vary greatly, I would recommend that students keep this in mind.

For additional background on New Essay sample reports, read the 5- and 6-score essays on the ACT website link here:,





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