Students work on a practice ACT test in this 2011 file photo. (AP Photo/The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)

Many students are in an uproar over a change to the ACT that has yielded what they call inexplicably low scores on the essay section of the nation’s most widely used college admission test.

Controversy erupted soon after the ACT introduced a revised essay-writing task in September that is being graded for the first time on the same 36-point scale as the rest of the test. Counselors across the country are complaining that many of their top students, who routinely earn marks higher than 30 on other parts of the ACT, are getting writing scores in the low-to-mid 20s.

“I know these kids well,” said Michele Hernandez, a college counselor based in Vermont. “There’s no way they should be getting scores that low on the writing. It’s obviously out of whack.”

Some students dissatisfied with their writing scores have discovered a solution: They can pay ACT $50 to re-score their essay. Few take this step, but those who do will get their re-scoring fee refunded if ACT revises the score upward, ACT spokesman Ed Colby said.

One Rhode Island student took the ACT in September, getting a 19 on the writing section and 30s on the rest of the test. “He’s a pretty good writer,” one of this student’s parents said. “I thought the 19 was odd.” The student asked for a re-score and was rewarded with a huge bump, to 31. There was no explanation for what the parent called a “very dramatic” change. “I was a little disconcerted.”

This parent and some affected students spoke with The Washington Post on condition of anonymity to maintain their privacy in the college application process.

Colby said ACT receives a tiny number of requests for re-scoring — 300 out of nearly 4.3 million tests administered in the last school year. “It’s a very small number of students who use it, and most of them do not receive a score change,” he said.

ACT officials acknowledge that essay-writing scores are trending lower than scores in English, reading, math and science, but they say that scores in one subject aren’t meant to be directly comparable to those in another.

“We urge students to understand that a particular score on the ACT Writing Test doesn’t mean the same thing as a score on any of the other ACT tests,” Colby said. “And colleges understand this.”

The ACT essay is an optional 40-minute writing exercise offered after 2 hours and 55 minutes of multiple-choice assessment in English, reading, math and science. Before September, the ACT gave students 30 minutes to compose an essay taking a position on a given issue, with the writing graded on a scale of 2 to 12. The new essay requires students to “develop an argument that puts their own perspective in dialogue with others” in response to a contemporary issue. A sample topic on the ACT website is the influence of “intelligent machines.”

Many colleges don’t require the essay for students who take the ACT. But a number of selective schools, from Harvard and Princeton to the University of California, do require it. Typically, more than half of all ACT test-takers answer the essay question. The essay score doesn’t factor into the overall composite score, which is often considered the most crucial takeaway from an admissions test.

One 16-year-old from the suburbs of Chicago said he took the test in October and got a 36 on each of the four required portions of the ACT. Those top marks ordinarily would be cause for celebration. But his writing score, he said, was a 23.

“I was expecting in the very worst case maybe a high 20 score,” he said. “It really took me aback. It bothers me.”

A 17-year-old who grew up in Washington, D.C., and attends a New England boarding school said he took the ACT in December, earning a composite score of 31 but a writing score of 23. “I was surprised,” he said. “I consider myself a pretty good writer.”

Responding to numerous questions, ACT officials recently published an explanation of their essay scoring. It said that two trained graders read each essay, using a rubric to assign points in four categories: ideas and analysis; development and support; organization; and language use and conventions. A third reader can step in to settle differences.

The ACT analysis showed that grades varied significantly among the five subjects on the overall test. The top 5 percent of students scored 32 or higher in English and reading. But they scored 30 or higher in math and science. And their scores were lower still in writing: 27 to 28 or higher.

Students “are only beginning to get experience with the new writing prompt,” the analysis said. “Research suggests that as students become increasingly familiar with the new prompt, scores may increase and users will better understand the distribution of scores and how they correspond to the percentiles and predicted success in college.”

The controversy comes amid flux in the national testing landscape. The ACT recently overtook the SAT as the nation’s most widely used test, though the SAT remains more popular in the Washington region and many other markets. The College Board is scheduled to debut a new version of its SAT next month, when for the first time since 2005, the SAT’s essay will be optional and the overall top score will be 1600. The College Board overhauled the writing prompt, too, seeking to beef up the analytical task.

How much colleges care about the ACT essay or the SAT essay is an open question.

Of 539 schools that the College Board tracks, 426 will neither require or recommend that students take the SAT essay when the new version debuts. Among them are the public flagship universities of Virginia and Maryland, as well as Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania in the Ivy League. Several highly regarded schools, including Columbia, U-Penn. and U-Va., also are dropping ACT essay requirements. U-Md. said its longstanding policy has been to not require the ACT essay.

John McLaughlin, an associate dean of admissions at U-Penn., said any essay scores that are submitted will get evaluated along with the rest of an application. He said most admitted students who took the ACT have composite scores of 32 or higher. Asked about the flap over the ACT essay and perceived scoring mismatches, he said: “I can understand the unease.”

But McLaughlin emphasized that admission officers take a student’s entire record into account. “It’s our job to get beyond these numbers.”

This item has been updated.

 

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