Why is my ACT essay score so low?! Recently, this question has been brimming in anxious college-bound students’ minds– students with A’s in English are coming home with scores of 22, 23 or 24 on the essay portion out of 36. The simple answer is that the ACT essay prompt and scoring system has changed (that’s not the only thing that’s changed on the ACT — read this post for more on other changes: important changes to the new ACT.) What’s more, the ACT is now reverting back from a 36 scale to a 12 scale this fall. As such, when you took the exam is going to impact what your score looks like.
September 2015 – June 2016
In September 2015, ACT rolled out its new “three-perspectives” essay with a new scoring system that puts essays on the 1-36 range like the rest of the test. But part of what is totally confusing is that percentiles in the essay section aren’t tracking with those of the other sections— i.e. a 23 on the new ACT essay is around the 80th percentile– but on other sections the 80th percentile is in line with a 25 or 26 on other sections–a 26 on Writing falls into the 93rd percentile, whereas a 26 on Reading falls into the 78th percentile. In other words, your score is probably higher than it looks. For more comparisons on the percentiles straight from ACT.org, click here.
But wait, my score still seems really low…
The other major change to the essay is the style of prompt. Writing on three perspectives can be very challenging and confusing– it’s the hardest essay task I’ve seen from an ACT or SAT. In addition to changing the prompt style, the test also changed the method of scoring. Rather than scoring “holistically,” graders now score according to rubric. The analytic rubric is comprised of four different categories called domain scores – 1) Ideas & Analysis; 2) Development & Support; 3) Organization; 4) Language Use & Conventions. According to the ACT’s officially published research letter, this new rubric is “intended to delineate critical writing skills and provide targeted score information about each skill.” The result is that graders aren’t scaling students to their “gut vibe” but rather, grading them down for specific types of errors, and in turn not rewarding them for overall effect. As such, when graders used to round (probably up) now the fact that students are performing slightly differently from each other is actually showing.
Why would ACT do this!?!
A disproportionate number of students on the old essay grading scale used to get “8/12” — but there wasn’t much distinction between students because such a huge number of them were all getting the same score. ACT stepped in hoping to bring more precision to the process. What resulted instead was more confusion.
Where did this score come from anyhow?
Two trained graders individually rate each rubric section 1-6. The numbers are then added up, which means each domain score is 2-12. The four domain scores are then all summed up, for a total of 8-48. Lastly, this number is converted to a scaled score, making the final score 1-36.
But wait – the ACT essay will actually change again in September 2016. We’ll explain more below.
September 2016 – Present
Because students, parents and counselors have spoken out, in September 2016, the ACT will revert back to its original 2-12 scale, 12 being the highest possible score. However, the ACT will not be scored holistically; two graders will each give their own score of 1-6 in the four domains mentioned earlier. The scores will be summed up, then the final score will be the average of the domain scores.
However, with this change, the prompt style will stay the same! You will still be asked to analyze three perspectives on a controversial topic of contemporary concern.
Are scores still going to seem low in September?
Maybe. It’s possible that graders tend to grade less generously on an analytical scale comprised of individual subscores, than on a broad, holistic scale.But at the same time, when scores are averaged, some of the “nuance” that brought scores down from the proverbial “8/12” may disappear. It’s also possible that students are scoring lower on this particular task because it’s more complex than the old essay style. We’ll see if the new “averaging” works out to percentiles on the previous incarnation of the essay or not.
If you’re looking for more help on the ACT essay, be sure to check out our other posts on the ACT essay!