ACT Abandons Essay Hand Scoring Option

After an embarrassing year of inconsistently graded essays, the ACT has made two remarkable changes to its essay scoring policy.  First, it abandoned the 36-point scoring scale and reverted to the simpler 12-point scoring scale.  Then it officially terminated its policy of re-grading or “hand-scoring” ACT essays for a fee.  These changes are designed to help restore confidence in the essay and convince more college admissions officers that the scores for the ACT should again be trusted.

For much of last year, the hand-scoring option was a source of troubles for the ACT.  National media outlets focused on the wild swings in essay grades following the $50 hand-scoring.  Essays receiving initial scores of 19 and 24 were adjusted upward to final scores of 31 and 33 respectively, following the $50 “wager.”  Much attention was paid to the glaring inconsistency in grading, as well as the potential issue of access for those who could afford the $50 fee, and those who found it fiscally burdensome.  

For those willing and able to wager the $50, apart from the cash outlay, there was no downside risk.  The ACT would never return a score lower than the original.  A student’s score would either remain the same or move up.  In the year of transition and scoring inconsistencies, it is likely that more families requested this service.

By eliminating the hand-scoring service, inconsistencies in grading will no longer be held up to public scrutiny.  In lieu of hand-scoring, the ACT will offer a less gameable score verification service for $40.  This minimal service will verify that the student’s essay was properly scanned, uploaded, displayed and graded according to official ACT protocols, but the essay content will not be up for review unless a procedural error was found.  Effectively this service is a $40 donation to the ACT, Inc.  Barring some wildly aberrant essay score which may have resulted from a gross error or an essay switch, there is no reason to spend a dollar on this service.  If the ACT decides to align with the SAT and return to students a digital copy of their essay, this would essentially render even the verification service obsolete.

By eliminating the possibility of hand-scoring, the ACT has addressed the critique that affluent students might be able to buy their way to a higher essay score.  In addition, the ACT has removed from the public discourse the exposure of scoring inconsistencies which called into question the reliability of the essay.  Graders may continue to struggle to arrive at the “right” score, but those struggles will no longer be fodder for the press.  In light of the simplified scoring scale and the closing of a grading loophole, the ACT hopes to regain the trust of higher-education institutions and prove that the ACT Writing section merits consideration in the admissions process.


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