Is something up with the ACT exam?

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In a recent Washington Post article, students expressed dismay in the scores reported for the essay section of the ACT exam. Many young people who have previously reported good grades and positive feedback on their writing say they were graded much worse on the ACT’s essay portion than seemed reasonable to them.

The reported solution to the low grades? Paying extra $50 to ACT for a re-scoring of their essays:

"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.'”

The paranoid among us might wonder if there was a sneaky cash grab going on, a backdoor solicitation of funds in exchange for a higher score. Certainly, that is an accusation being thrown about in social media in a big way.

However, there are a couple of factors to consider. First, the policy of ACT is to refund that extra “re-scoring” money if the score is revised upward. In other words, ACT doesn’t benefit financially from boosting scores.

Secondly, the essay portion is separate from other portions of the exam. Indeed, many colleges don’t even consider the essay portion (though many ivy league schools most definitely do). It’s an optional portion of the test, even though around half of all test-takers do write the essay. What’s more, the current writing prompt is new, and may well be taking people by surprise:

"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.'”

That’s quite different from the previous essay format, which required students to explain an opinion on a given topic.

Finally, the essay is graded by two separate people, using a documented rubric. In other words, while it may be upsetting to get a lower score than expected, don’t jump to conclusions as to the cause, because as things are set up, ACT has no financial motive to push your score lower. There's no reason therefore, to believe that anything is amiss.

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