ACT Essay Scoring Inconsistencies

Something is awry with the ACT’s new essay.  The first sign came in September – shortly after administering the new essay format for the first time, the ACT, Inc. unexpectedly revised the grading rubric and provide amended sample essays.  On the heels of this change, the ACT, Inc. then significantly delayed score release for the September test, causing difficulty for seniors who needed the September scores to complete their early admissions applications. Once finally released, the scores confounded countless students whose essay scores diverged significantly from their prior essay results and seemed misaligned with their scores for the other sections of the test.

Many students who had received 11s and 12s (out of a possible 12) on the old essay format last spring were shocked to receive scores in the low to mid 20s (out of a possible 36) on the updated essay. Likewise, some students whose composite scores were not nearly as strong were happily surprised to find essay scores in the 33-36 range.  Inconsistency seemed to rule the day. School counselors and independent educational consultants across the country have asked us for any insights that may help them better understand their students’ seemingly misaligned essay scores.  While we also heard from students whose scores aligned with expectations, the stories to the contrary were frequent and far-reaching enough to make us wonder: what is happening with this new essay?

At first blush, it seems the ACT graders are still learning how to grade this new essay consistently given the more cumbersome scoring rubric.  In the new scoring paradigm, two graders read the essay, each assigning scores on 4 discrete measures (assigning a maximum of 6 points apiece), for a maximum raw score of 24 points per grader.  The two raw scores (now out of a possible 48 points) are then scaled to a final score out of 36.  This new grading system is considerably more complex than the simple score of 1-6 that essay graders were previously responsible for.  The scoring range is wider and the there are more factors to consider.  While the complex scoring rubric has the advantage of offering a much more detailed assessment of student writing, it also creates more room (at least at first) for scoring inconsistencies and aberrations.

If a student receives a lower than anticipated essay score, that student would naturally want to review his or her essay to determine what factors may have contributed to the lower score.  With the ACT’s new essay, however, individual students are denied the right to view their essays.  This access is reserved for high school counselors and other authorized users, who may opt in to an essay viewer tool to review the essays from their high school.  The SAT, on the other hand, has adopted a more transparent approach to essay feedback.  Since 2005 the College Board has released essays directly to students so that they can read them and make necessary adjustments on subsequent tests.  Deprived of essential feedback on the ACT essay, how can individual students improve and learn from their errors?

The ACT does allow students to protest seemingly unfair scores, but it’s not clear if the protest process enables students to access any more information about why their essay scores landed in a certain range.  For a $50 fee, the ACT will hand-score the essay and return an updated score within 5-8 weeks. According to the ACT website, if a scoring error is discovered, the hand-scoring fee will be refunded, but we don’t yet know if the student will receive a copy of the essay after this process is complete.  Without the scored essay in hand, even students who are satisfied with their revised scores may never fully understand the rationale behind their results.

While the ACT works out the grading kinks for this new essay, it’s important to note that we believe this new essay is a marked improvement over the old.  The new essay is more challenging, more analytical, and appears to be a more effective measure of critical thinking.  We applaud the improvement in the essay and await more consistency in grading this new product.

Tell us about your experience

Have you experienced or had students who’ve experienced a similar mismatch between ACT scores and essays?  Please share your comments here!


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  • kenv

    How do you anticipate that the inconsistencies in grading of the new ACT essays along with the return of the SAT essay now being optional will affect admissions for the class of 2017? Are some schools likely to no longer require the essay portions or if they do, will they count less in admission decisions than they have in the past? My son was one of the Sept. 2015 ACT takers who had a 34 composite (33-35 range on all sections) yet only a 20 on his essay. So far he has been advised to be happy with his high composite score and not consider retaking the ACT just to try and raise his essay score.

  • Jed Applerouth

    In all likelihood admission reps will put far less emphasis on the essay grades in the forthcoming admissions cycle. There’s simply too much scoring inconsistency to provide a highly meaningful measure. When the same essay can receive scores that are 10-11 points apart after hand-scoring, it is clear that we have some major reliability issues! Colleges will be gathering data, running their own internal analyses to determine how they will use the essay in future years. Your son’s 34 composite speaks for itself: he’s clearly a solid tester. The 20 essay will be greatly discounted in this year of transition.

  • Adam J. Chill

    Is there any risk of possibly getting a lower score on the ACT essay with a regrade request?