How the New ACT Writing Test Went Wrong

By October 29, 2015 September 26th, 2016 ACT, College Admission Requirements


[On June 28th, 2016 ACT threw in the towel on the 1-36 score and decided to start reporting scores on a 2-12 range starting September 2016. To find our more about the impact, check out our extensive explanation of the changes.]

[Just after this post was finalized, ACT announced on October 30th that scoring of September tests had been completed internally and that reports would be posted over the weekend in time for early admission applications. This development is a big relief for impacted test takers, but does not change the conclusions of this piece.]

The September 12 administration of the ACT was the unveiling of the new and improved ACT Writing, the optional essay component that more than a million students choose to take each year. There were new prompts and instructions, of course. The test length was extended and a new scoring guide (rubric) for essay graders put in place. New domain scores, a scaled score, and a combined ELA score were a part of the revised package. Thrown into the mix were mostly seniors, many of whom had grappled with a different essay assignment and different scoring only months before. All this was taking place approximately 5 weeks before November 1 early application deadlines. What could go wrong? As it turns out, plenty.

Quality Assurance
Scores have been delayed by weeks for tens of thousands of students, upending some early application plans and causing confusion and anxiety on the part of students, parents, counselors, and admission officers. More troubling for the long-term health of ACT Writing is that the scores students have received are causing almost as much confusion and anxiety as the delay. The questions around ACT Writing come at a time when colleges are re-evaluating the importance of the essay. Initially, ACT told students that the delay was “a routine part of our quality assurance and scoring process.” More recent statements have acknowledged that “scoring and reporting of results is taking longer than typical due to the introduction of the enhanced design of the writing test, which uses a new scoring rubric.”

Despite the fact that Writing is an optional component of the ACT, the testing organization has said that it is unable to send an ACT with Writing student’s official score report — even of just the core multiple-choice sections — until the essay score has been finalized. ACT does not expect to be fully out from under the backlog until November 6 [we now know that ACT was able to push this target forward to 10/31.]. In an unprecedented statement for a major testing organization, ACT has recommended that students send colleges screenshots of their multiple-choice scores as a stopgap measure. Admission offices have had a mixed reaction to this recommendation, and it has done little to tamp down anxiety. In an effort to downplay the delays, ACT has pointed to the fine print of their testing policy that notes that scoring may take up to 8 weeks. Typically this only comes into play for exceptional cases where sheets have been misplaced or mangled, or additional investigation needs to be done. A college admission testing delay impacting this many students for this long has not occurred since the College Board’s “humidity problem” in 2005.

Thousands of New Scores Every Day
College Board and ACT both have a history of secrecy when it comes to registration numbers and scoring issues. While the organizations disclose the annual number of test takers, they do not release the number of students testing on a particular date. ACT has followed that playbook by not specifying how many students took the September 12 test, how many students received their results “on time,” or how many students are still awaiting scores. Given ACT statements that they are “releasing thousands of new scores every day” and given the length of the delay, we can project that tens of thousands of scores were impacted.

Scoring several hundred thousand exams requires a massive scaling up of part-time readers and a sudden scaling down when the readers’ work is done (or estimated to be done). ACT takes advantage of the web to distribute grading responsibility, but any change in deployment plans for its reader army would not have come without hiccups. ACT’s scoring capacity may have dropped when it needed it most because it had, in a sense, already planned for much of its army to go home.  An irony is that ACT became what it is today because of a revolution in test scoring speed — ACT founder E.F. Lindquist patented a machine for pencil mark scoring in 1962.

A Preventable Error
The choice of September for a rollout of the new essay was an error — a preventable error. A February 2016 launch made more sense in several important ways and would have mimicked the launch of the original ACT Writing in February 2005. Why was the September introduction a foreseeable and preventable error?

  1. Fall scores are more time sensitive than spring scores. A delay in February scores would not have jeopardized college applications in the way that the September slowdown has. Field tests of several hundred or several thousand students cannot replicate the processes needed to score hundreds of thousands of essays. A scoring overhaul of this magnitude — readers need to assess and score an essay in four different areas instead of giving a single “holistic” score — should have come with better contingency planning and a longer runway.
  2. Testers who were repeating the ACT this fall had to prepare for a very different essay. Taking the ACT in the spring of junior year and repeating the exam in the fall of senior year is a testing pattern followed by an estimated half-million students each year. It is unfortunate that some students were taken by surprise by the revised essay format. A February rollout would have more neatly separated the class of 2016 (original ACT essay) and the class of 2017 (new ACT essay). The delay also would have provided more time to educate students about the change. [Compass had been tracking the new essay since its announcement and made sure that its tutors, students, materials, and practice testing facilities were ready.]
  3. The September introduction has left students and admission offices to face the perplexing issue of how to compare the raw, holistic 2-12 score on the original ACT essay to the four 2-12 domain scores and scaled 1-36 score of the new Writing test. The contributions and limitations of test results are more easily understood when all applicants have taken the same exam. A February start would have meant that essentially all 2015-2016 freshman applicants would have 2-12 scores and almost all 2016-2017 freshman applicants would have 1-36 scores. Instead, a concordance is used to provide comparable scores. Concordances suffer from notable liabilities, and the limited score range of the original essay exacerbates those liabilities. For example, a score of 8 on the old essay concords with a scaled score of 23 on the new essay, while a 9 leaps to a concordant score of 30. As for domain scores, nothing on the old essay compares to the analytic rubric used on the new essay, so admission offices use the scores at their own risk. “Is ‘Development and Support’ more important than ‘Ideas and Analysis’?”

It’s not clear what benefits ACT saw in a September rollout. ACT publishes its Preparing for the ACT on a school-year calendar, but the convenience of keeping a single booklet does not seem to justify splitting an admission cycle down the middle. Perhaps ACT wanted the stage to itself (now a mixed blessing). A February 2016 launch could have buried the essay revamp in the noise surrounding the redesigned SAT’s debut in March. College Board and ACT regularly compete to “get there first.”

The Future of ACT Writing and the SAT Essay
The problems with ACT Writing come at an awkward time. College Board is making the essay optional on the redesigned SAT. As long as the essay was an integral part of the SAT, many colleges felt that the logical response was to require ACT with Writing (or ACT Plus Writing as it used to be called). Now that both College Board and ACT have made the essay optional, colleges are re-evaluating writing tests that increase fees by approximately 40% and lengthen testing by 20-30%. Do the SAT and ACT essays add sufficient value to the admission process to justify their requirement? A growing number of schools are saying “No,” and few are coming out strongly in favor of preserving the timed writing sample. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton will continue to require the SAT or ACT essay for the class of 2017, but Penn, Cornell, and Columbia have dropped, or are dropping, the requirement. Boston College, Boston University, and Northwestern are also doing away with the essay. University of Chicago, Georgetown, and Washington University in St. Louis never adopted the writing tests in the first place. The University of California system is the largest recipient of score reports in the country and will continue to require the essay portions of the exams. University of Wisconsin is a system on the other side of the divide and is eliminating the writing requirement for next year’s applicants. Most colleges and universities are still in the “To be determined” column.

ACT cannot undo the mistakes of the essay rollout, although there are changes we hope are made. Scoring inadequacies need to be permanently addressed. If the September administration of the ACT risks regularly becoming “too late for early admission,” large swaths of students will have their options limited. The organization should make a new commitment to transparency when problems develop. ACT needs to devote resources to making students’ essays available online so that students can use the test and the rubric as a true learning tool. The essays are available to high schools and colleges, but not to the authors. More research needs to be presented to students and educators about the reliability and predictive validity of the new prompt and new scores — this is true for the ACT and SAT.

Meanwhile, Compass continues to recommend that students take the ACT with Writing. Application plans change and a skipped essay could negate great scores on English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science, as schools that require Writing will not necessarily “superscore” Writing and non-Writing test dates. The long-term prognosis for ACT Writing and the SAT Essay depends not on ACT and College Board stating that writing is a fundamental skill for college success — it undoubtedly is — but on their ability to make the case that an impromptu essay is useful in cultivating or assessing that skill. The “To be determined” column is being rapidly determined.

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.


  • Sue says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and guidance. My son just finished 10th grade and decided to take the SAT and ACT in May and June, with the optimistic hope he might not have to take either again. He was also concerned because some of the math on the PSAT he hadn’t seen since middle school and he’s getting ready to start AP Calculus AB BC. Like so many of the kids on this string, he is quite driven, straight A’s, etc.

    He received a 1490 on the SAT, with 800 on reading and writing and a 690 on math.
    He received a composite of 33 on the ACT with a breakdown of:
    English 35
    Math 28
    Reading 34
    Science 36
    Writing 18

    It seems pretty clear doing some math prep for either of these could help. But that writing score is really an outlier, even given all the strangeness outlined above. He just got back his AP World History result and it was a 5, and that is a lot of writing. I understand this is a different rubric. Given all of the above, and that he has already sent his scores to three schools, do you think he should simply re-take the exams? What about a re-score on the writing? I know they have changed the scoring going forward, but this is on his record now and forever….thank you again for your insight.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sorry for the delay in replying — especially since you are considering a rescore. I would recommend filing for an essay regrade. Yes, it’s a bit of an outlier, but your son is only a rising junior. You bring up an important point — he may have enough benefit in working on his math to justify a retest. He should plan on getting a close understanding of what the rubric demands on the ACT Writing. Although he is not working on SAT math much in his classes, he should be able to refresh his skills with some focused attention. I can understand that it is disappointing to not be done with testing, but your son is in excellent shape before junior year even begins.

  • Emily says:

    I have read your replies and I think are very useful. I noticed many students are in the same situation for the writing score.
    My son in April ’16 got Composite Act score 33 (32 english, 36 math, 33 science, 32 reading), writing 22. ELA 29 and STEM 35.
    In June ’16 ACT score 34 (33 english, math 36, reading 30, science 35), writing 24. ELA 29 and STEM 36.
    I would appreciate your advice about retaking the ACT or not.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The situation is common enough that I don’t see colleges — those that look at Writing at all — being overly concerned. They are not in the business of turning away qualified students because of the results of a dubious essay exam. It’s only when students fall into the teens where I feel that the situation switches from “typical of a screwy essay test” to “I wonder what this says about the applicant’s writing.” A 34 Composite is a great reason to be done with testing!

  • Victoria says:

    With concern to the writing portion of the ACT, you have mentioned yellow/red flags. What exactly constitutes a yellow/red flag to admission officers? Would my daughter’s score below be in alignment or raise a red/yellow flag.

    Look forward to your feedback-

    • Art Sawyer says:

      There is no definitive cutoff, but I will say that many Writing scores are bunched in the 20’s and that it is quite normal for Composite 30 students to score in this range. When a student falls into the teens, I grow more concerned. One of the reasons why I’ve been delayed in replying is actually that we have been working on information that was just announced yesterday on the fact that ACT is abandoning the 1-36 scale and moving back to a 2-12 score range. On that 2-12 range, your daughter’s score would be equivalent to an 8, and we see even the most competitive colleges having a 25th-75th range of scores as 8-10. You can read more about the percentiles and issues surrounding 1-36 and 2-12 in our ACT Writing Scores Explained.

  • Sue says:

    I got a composite score of 34 with a 36 in English, 33 in Reading, 33 in Math and 35 in Science. I got a 24 in Writing. My English teacher was able to read my essay. He thought the rubric was rather vague compared to AP but he felt he would have scored my essay in the 30-31 range. Should I get my essay regraded?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sue, great score, and I wouldn’t worry too much about your Writing. Grading standardized test essays is an odd skill. The testing organizations find that agreement is best achieved when readers move very quickly. Basically, you don’t want independent thought from a reader! Those of us reading essays outside of that environment often read more supportively (or critically) than would an ACT or SAT scorer. This is not to say that your English teacher is wrong — just pointing out one of the ways in which students can sometimes be surprised by grading differences. As you may have surmised from my other comments, I encourage rescoring. It’s not necessarily because I think that it will improve a student’s chances at admission, but because I’ve seen how it can make students feel better about the experience. It’s also a case where the uneven grading can work in a student’s favor. Scores are often changed, so you may even get back the $50 fee.

  • Valerie says:

    My daughter has standardized testing burnout, and the ACT writing score of 23 didn’t help. Her composite is 32 with a 28 English, 32 math, 31 reading, 35 science. She absolutely refuses to retest the ACT and took the SAT twice with superscore of 600 CR, 610 writing, 800 (!) math. She will only submit the ACT score unless mandated to submit all test scores. We are getting close to the three month cut off to request a writing rescore. Do you think it’s worth it for this math/science kid?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Your daughter’s 23 is in line with what we have seen on ACT Writing (many students clustered in the low- to mid-20s) and shouldn’t pose an obstacle for her — even at the limited number of colleges still requiring the essay. Other than the $50 fee and the bother, though, there is little reason not to request a rescore. It guarantees two sets of fresh eyes on your daughter’s essay; her score cannot be lowered; and you will receive a refund if her score is changed. In very few cases will a rescore be significant enough to change a student’s testing profile, but it can sometimes provide peace of mind that the writing has been judged fairly.

      • Valerie says:

        Thanks, Art. The check is in the mail to request a writing rescore though my daughter says she prefers I use the money for concert tickets for her and a friend!

  • Kelly says:

    Art, I’m just discovering this article and I’m wondering if ACT will go back further than 3 months to rescore an essay. On the October 2015 test, my daughter earned a 32 composite score, with 36 in English, 33 Reading, 31 Science, and 29 Math, but 20 on the Writing section. She shrugged it off at the time, but now doesn’t want to send the score out because of the essay score. She’s asked if she should re-take, or just go with her SAT score (1400 R+M, 2080 with writing). I am kicking myself for not checking into the ACT essay issue earlier! Thoughts?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      No, ACT will not allow rescoring except in the 3 month window after the student receives her scores. Based on your score presentation, I’m assuming that your daughter’s SAT score was on the old test. Since that’s not repeatable, your daughter has several options:
      1) Do nothing. Her SAT and ACT scores are very much aligned and neither score would change her admission odds over the other. At some schools, the ACT comes with the added benefit of fulfilling Subject Test requirements, but I don’t usually recommend skipping Subject Tests (there are exceptions). Her Writing score on the ACT is unlikely to cause any issues at the vast majority of colleges. It also sounds like SAT Writing may have been her weakest section.
      2) Take the New SAT. The problem here is that your daughter would then have taken 3 tests, none of which she would have had the chance to repeat and build upon. If her PSAT was very strong, this might be an option. Otherwise…
      3) Repeat the ACT. I like this option because she can work to improve an already good score. Your daughter also took the ACT fairly early, so her testing skills may have improved. Most students can raise their Math scores with some focused preparation.

      Scores also can’t be looked at in a vacuum. Although a 32 is an excellent score, there are colleges that will want higher scores from applicants. On the other hand, it may more than satisfy the requirements at other colleges. I would not be that anxious about the 20 in Writing, but I would recommend looking at the September ACT.

      • Kelly says:

        Thank you Art, for the thoughtful reply. She did decide to register to repeat the ACT. We managed to get a seat in late registration for June. She feels that she can improve her math and writing scores, with classes completed in the spring semester. (Her school does a block schedule with 2 semesters, so with AP English and Pre-cal under her belt, she feels confident on some improvement.) She did take the old SAT, thinking she would do better than the new format. If I calculated correctly, her score will be enough to verify for NMSF if needed (PSAT SI 223 in TX), since she’d rather not take any more tests after this one! Thanks again!

  • Jeff Glike says:


    My son scored well on his April exam, with a 31 composite, but had a 15 on his Writing. I am thinking about having the writing rescored, since I expect very likely go up. I noted that you said that if they re-grade it, it will either be the same score or go up, it cannot go down.
    Although I have not received his answers for the 4 main sections of the exam, is there ANY chance they regrade those and somehow go down. I know this may seem like a silly question, but since most of his schools do not require writing, it would be terrible if somehow that happened.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Not a silly question at all. It would be a shame to jeopardize his Composite. The good news is that there is no chance of that. ACT’s policy is that a scoring “mistake” can never hurt a student. Even if that wasn’t the policy, there would be virtually no chance of a multiple-choice grading error bringing a score lower. The policy makes it completely safe. Good luck with the rescore.

  • Karen Siegfried says:

    Thank you for your prompt and detailed reply, and I appreciate the insight into the English section being “teachable””. Regarding contacting admissions officers, is it considered “okay” for parents to ask the questions as opposed to the potential applicant being the one to reach out? I’ve read a lot about “helicopter”parenting in the US, so not sure what the accepted protocol is. Our son is currently not overly interested in boosting his Composite, given that it is at or just above the average Composite scores for his current target schools. However, I’m wondering if the slight imbalance in the English scores would work against the overall composite score, and your point about the increased importance of a standardised test is well taken. Thanks again for your time and suggestions, they are particularly valuable given our distance from the US college application landscape.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The slight imbalance will not disadvantage him — particularly give his STEM interest. I think one of the characteristics of a helicopter is that it just keeps spinning. Asking the occasional question, especially given your distance from the process, is just fine for a parent. Even better if your son does it just because it gives him experience in talking with admission offices.

  • Karen Siegfried says:

    Dear Art,
    I’ve just discovered your website and it is a wonderful resource, thank you! We are Americans who have lived in England since our son, now 11th grade equivalent, was in second grade, and he has been schooled in the British system. He plans to attend university in the US, and just took his ACT in April. His composite score is 33: English 28 (Usage/Mechanics 12 but Rhetorical Skills 17), Math 35, Reading 36 and Science 32, with a 23 in Writing. As he undertook some, but certainly not extensive/dedicated prep, he was very pleased with his Composite, although slightly disappointed with his English, and also his writing. Although he did admit he did not focus much time on prep for the writing. His current plan is to study biology/neuroscience. I’m wondering if admissions officers would take into account that he has not been educated in a US curriculum, which might have had some impact on his English Usage/Mechanics scores, as well as his writing. In the British system, he has spent this year studying for his AS levels in four subjects, Math, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, so has not done English/writing since last year (11th grade). He will sit his AS exams in June (one exam that determines his grade for the entire year), for which he has been predicted A’s. He has no time now to prep for another ACT, particularly the need to focus on the writing score. He did receive A’s in his English Literature and English Language GCSEs, the exams British students take at the end of 10th grade, which gives one grade for their work over in grades 8-10. Given his interest in pursuing science, would you advise another ACT in the autumn? We’re struggling to understand how admissions officers perceive the UK system of GCSEs, AS levels and where a standardized test, which is not supported through the British curriculum, might fit in their decision. Thank you for any advice.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I won’t pretend to know enough about AS-levels and GCSEs to answer your question about how admission officers perceive them. Most admission departments are now coming out of the most harrowing time of their year, so you may be able to discuss this issue directly with officers at your son’s target schools. I can speak more knowledgeably about the ACT. First, we find that the English test is the most “coachable” section. Students can quickly develop facility with the types of questions used by ACT and the sorts of errors tested. This is important, because given your son’s nearly perfect scores in Reading and Math, he’ll need to find score increases in English (and Science) in order to boost his Composite. And to a great degree, the ACT is about the Composite.

      As you may see from my recent comments, many students fall in the “good enough” category for Writing scores. The predictive value of high Writing scores is simply not there, and colleges do not want to miss out on outstanding students by overvaluing a score that adds little value. I would look at retesting if your son wants to invest the time in raising his Composite. An opportunity to improve his Writing score should be a “side benefit.” In some cases, standardized testing can be more important for international students because colleges can use them as a benchmark when comparing students from disparate education systems. Most colleges, though, will have familiarity with UK testing.

  • Hemalatha Ranganathan says:

    My son is also in a similar situation as Kumar’s daughter: Sophomore with Composite score of 36, Writing score of 23,ELA is 31 and STEM is 36. He is not planning to take SAT to use for admissions though he may take it for National Merit Scholarship. Would you have any suggestion for him?


    • Art Sawyer says:

      We are seeing many high scoring students with writing scores clustered in the low to mid 20s. A score in that range typically means that a student has domain scores in the 8-9 range. Historically, colleges have had little problem admitting students with those sorts of scores. The new 1-36 scaled score reporting for ACT Writing distorts some the the shortcomings that have always existed with an impromptu essay. Colleges recognize the problems with the essay and place little weight on it. Given your son’s outstanding Composite, it’s hard to justify additional testing — the costs significantly outweigh the benefits. If you have not already done so, I recommend ordering a rescoring of the essay. I don’t suggest that he retake the ACT. It’s unfortunate how the good intentions of a writing test have gone so wrong. Congratulations to your son on his achievement.

  • Kumar says:

    Thanks for your wonderful advice Art. She is taking SAT Chemistry, Sat Biology, Sat Math, and maybe SAT Spanish or anything else if time permits.
    In case she never gets to rewrite ACT, will it affect her admissions to submit the 36 score with a bad writing score in case she ends up with decent Subject SAT’s(750+) and 2250+ SAT score. We would want her to spend time on volunteering, research or just having fun than preparing for tests but if she has to then she will. Problem is ACT doesn’t allow us to report her ACT score without writing and we wonder how it will be perceived when they see it.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I’m getting used to the return to 1600 SAT scores, too, so just a reminder that she would be looking at 1500+ SAT scores — not 2250+ — plus a separate set of 2-8 essay scores in three domains. The SAT doesn’t bother to even total the scores, let alone scale them. I think there is a high probability that she will score solidly in the 1500s. At that point, her ACT and SAT scores are interchangeable. The only difference would be if she felt better about the essay scores on one exam or the other. Those essay scores are going to mean little given the rest of her hypothetical testing portfolio. I can’t quite go so far as to say that the scores won’t matter at all. In our discussions with admission officers, most admit that they give almost no credence to the essay (they have enough essays to read on their own). There are some, however, who do claim that a disparate score at least makes them dig a little deeper. [In your daughter’s case, that digging is likely to show an impressive tester and student.] I think it is a healthy attitude to plan on spending time in other areas, so I don’t present that information to encourage excessive testing. I want to be honest about the range of opinion we have heard. As I mentioned, with her starting point, all options are good.

  • Kumar says:

    My daughter got a composite score of 36 and a writing score of 18. Her ELA is 30 and STEM score is 36. She is a sophomore so I should say being her first time taking the test didn’t put much emphasis on writing thinking she may have to retake again in Junior Year. Now we are in a dilemma what she should do. Her PSAT score this year was 1480 so she is definitely planning to take SAT and PSAT next year. Overall her writing score has upset her very much and we had to assure her things will be fine. She wants to apply to BS/MD and premed programs at some selective schools so wondering whether it would be best for her to retake her ACT. We are filing for rescore but wondering how much it will bring her score up. Her fear is next time she takes, she may not end up with a 36 composite. Please let us know what would be best thing for her to do.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Achieving a 36 as a sophomore, first-time tester is truly remarkable. She has a number of options, all of them good. Even among the elite colleges, less than thirty percent will require writing for the class of 2017. I expect even more schools to have dropped the requirement for your daughter’s class. Many of the universities offering BS/MD programs don’t require ACT Writing, and I note that some used only Critical Reading and Math when evaluating SAT scores (in other words, they ignored an entire third of the old SAT). ACT Writing may not even come into play. So one option is to stand pat.

      The great news is that, as a sophomore, she does not need to be in a hurry. Given her sophomore PSAT score and the likelihood of improving it in the fall, she has an excellent chance of qualifying as a National Merit Scholar. She’ll need an SAT score as a “confirming” score, so it’s good that she already has that in her plans. She’ll still want to take the essay with the SAT to cover all of her bases. So option number two will be to apply with great SAT scores.

      Option three involves taking the ACT again. She may decide to retake it this fall to get it out of the way. She might wait until the spring and decide to skip it if she does well on the SAT. She could even wait until the fall of her senior year, although I’d advise taking the ACT no later than September to make sure that she has everything in order for ED/EA. Some of the BS/MD programs require Subject Tests even from ACT applicants, so she’ll need to fit those in. Should she be worried that she won’t achieve a 36 again? While it is true that a 36 requires a lot of things to go right on test day, many students don’t appreciate that virtually no admission office is going to use a 35 versus a 36 as a tie-breaker. If she is unhappy with her second score, she does not have to submit it. There are a few colleges still using the “must submit all” rule, but that’s a minor factor — especially for a student who has shown she is likely to turn in another strong performance. I’d probably encourage her to take the middle route. Mentally plan on taking the April or June ACT. By the time those dates roll around, she may already have a great SAT score and decide to skip the ACT. She may find out that none of her top colleges bother with ACT Writing — also allowing her to skip the retake. I’d advise her to try to reframe her fear into fearlessness. She’s already aced the test once, and ACT can’t take that away from her. She can do some preparation for the essay and swing for the fences.

  • Susan says:

    Dear Art,
    We have a very similar story to what has been written before. Our daughter had a composite score of 32; English – 34; Reading Comp – 35; Math – 29; Science – 30 but the essay was 19. She was stunned as she is quite a good writer and actually thought the essay had gone well. We did submit for a review, but I wonder how often they really change the score. Do you have a sense of this?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t have hard numbers on how often things are changed, but my sense it that it’s quite frequent. The re-scorers do not have access to the previous scores, so there is no bias. The complexity of the scoring (2 readers times 4 domain scores) means that a student’s total raw score will only occasionally be identical. Probably the biggest reason for a “no change” is that ACT will never lower a score. So if a student got 8/9/9/8 from the original scorers and 8/8/9/8 on re-score, ACT would not report a change and would keep your $50. But a 9/9/9/8 would mean a higher score and a refund of the $50 fee. I have to wonder how long ACT will keep this policy in place. It made sense in the days of pure multiple choice since Scantrons are highly accurate. It’s a far more expensive proposition when essay scores change frequently.

      Although I have seen some large changes, most re-scores end up with modest gains — two to three scaled points such as 23 to 25. You might also want to investigate getting a copy of your daughter’s essay; it can be a great learning tool. Your daughter, for example, may have misunderstood the essay assignment or unintentionally veered off course. Unfortunately, this can only be done via your high school.

  • Gerry says:

    Hello Art,
    My son (junior) just received his scores and has a composite of 29, with english, math, reading, science and writing at 32, 30, 26, 27 and (ouch) 23 respectively. Given your comments about writing perhaps not being that critically viewed in 2017, would you recommend he retake the ACT without it and focus on improving the other scores, most notably reading and science? He plans to retake it on May 5th. Thank you !

    • Art Sawyer says:

      As much as I dislike the current ACT essay (its scoring more than the essay itself), I don’t recommend students take the test without it. There are still enough schools that require Writing (about 1 in 4 among competitive colleges), that your son could end up with a useless score come application time. Colleges will generally not allow mixing and matching of Composite and Writing scores across test dates. I’d like to see those policies change. By all means, your son should put the most time into working on Reading and Science — and he may be able to bring up his strengths. Come test day, though, he should take Writing.

  • Jen Schwartz says:

    Good afternoon!
    My son originally took the Dec 2015 ACT with Writiing and received a composite score of a 31 but a 24 in the writing. He retook the ACT with Writing April 10 as he did some prep and improved his composite by 4 points to a 35 but received a 23 in writing. Should he retake in June? The whole process seems so exhausting! He has received two fives on AP Exams (Calc BC and Chem) as a sophomore and I expect will do quite well on his upcoming APs and subject SATs and currently maintains a weighted GPA of 4.808. Difficult to know how to advise. Many thanks! Jen S.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I think things are clearcut in your son’s case — celebrate the 35 and look ahead to the rest of the testing and application process. A few thoughts. [You can also see my response to Kim.]
      1) About 1,400-1,500 students got a higher score than your son on the ACT Composite. 99.9%ile is always nice.
      2) For me the bottom line is “optimize for Composite and let Writing follow.” If your son had a 32/16, I might recommend another shot. With virtually no place to go up on Composite and a respectable Writing score (presumably he had 8’s and 9’s), he has better uses of his time.
      3) Let’s say he gets a 34 next time but raises his Writing to a 27. Is that better? No. Colleges have been opaque — mainly because they haven’t thought through all of the implications — as to whether they will consider a Composite from one test and the Writing from another, and there is no need to present a lower Composite. Small gains in Writing will not impact decisions.
      4) He has already taken the test twice, and the Writing has proved stubborn. Does he have reason to believe that he can raise it to the 30’s while also getting a 35 or 36 Composite?

      The new Writing scale pretends a precision that it doesn’t have and an importance that it does not deserve. APs and Subject Tests await. Good luck!

  • Kim says:

    Thank you so much! I enjoy and appreciate your insight on these issues. The class of 2017 has definitely had an interesting journey, and it’s far from over! Admission decisions for these kids will be interesting for sure. And as a side note, her 35 was a great example of perseverance paying off! On to the next challenge!!!

  • Kim says:

    Hi there- like many of the previous responders, my daughter, too, has experienced lower than expected scores on the revised ACT writing test. In early April, she finally hit her goal to surpass a 32 composite. She scored a 35 with 36 English 34 Reading 33 Math and 36 Science! She was elated; however, the writing scores just came in at a 27. From what we’ve read, this puts her writing in the 95th percentile which is close, but not exactly comparable, with her composite and other sub-scores. It also places her ELA score at 32 which is ironic because she is a English/reading/writing oriented student who is now posting a higher STEM score (35)!!! Her June 2015 scores (first attempt) were a 32 composite: 35 English 32 Reading 30 Math and 31 Science with a 10/12 essay (old system) and 33 Combined English/Writing score. In February she hit a 32 composite again, but 23 on the new writing. This new writing test has been quite frustrating- typically her strength as a student, but unpredictable on the ACT.
    She is finishing up her junior year, and our question is: Would the 35 composite with the 27 writing and 32 ELA be the one and only score report to send to colleges, or should she also send the 32 composite with the 10/12 essay score and 33 combined English/wring to show she is capable of a higher writing score? I realize these differences are slight, but she really wants to put her best foot forward for some of the “highly selective” schools. Would admissions think less highly of a student capable of a 35 composite with a 27 writing? We keep reading that the writing tests may not even be necessary for 2017 applicants (ACT or SAT), but they are attached to all of her ACT scores and will be seen. We noticed that many schools are changing their positions on this just since the spring- If colleges decide this writing test is no longer required, how will they handle situations where it is included with score reports because students were adhering to prior admission policies (i.e. only accepting composite scores taken WITH the optional essay) at the time they registered to take the test? Thank you for your insight- we are looking forward to your thoughts!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      This is an easy one: send the 35 and be done with it. Congratulations to your daughter. What a great improvement.

      There are several reasons for the recommendation:
      1) The Composite score dwarfs the Writing score in importance for college admissions, and your daughter’s 35 is impressive.
      2) Her 27 Writing is quite good (keep in mind that mean scores are about 3 points lower than in the other subjects). No flags will be raised.
      3) As a simple average of English, Reading and Writing, the ELA adds no new information for colleges. No need to worry about it.
      4) A 27 Writing roughly concords to a 9 on the old essay. I wouldn’t have recommended that a student submit a lower Composite score because of the difference between a 9 and a 10.
      5) In your daughter’s case, she’d need to a) prolong her testing b) nail another ACT with a 35 or 36 c) raise her Writing score by enough that it makes a difference (and it almost certainly won’t make a difference).
      6) …or need to send a lower Composite score, which would be a loss rather than a gain.
      7) Although there is obviously no data available yet for the new essay, a 9 on the old Writing is in the middle of the 25th-75th percentile range for admitted students at the most competitive universities (8-10).
      8) Many college will not bother with Writing, let alone worry about a 27.
      9) I love irony.

      It is difficult to generalize across all admissions officers, but universities are voting with their requirements. In some cases, an admissions folder only includes scores being used (for example, some superscoring schools will only put the highest scores in the student’s file). In most cases, admissions offices will see the Writing score, but give it little to no credence.

      When time allows, I may write a more in-depth piece on some of the math behind Writing. Given the difference between the skills involved in the essay versus multiple-choice testing; given the imprecision of the essay; and given fluctuations in grader scores, there is a far lower correlation between the essay and other ELA scores or between the essay and the Composite score. In fact, Science has a higher correlation to Reading and English than does Writing (as you say, irony)! The low correlation means greater regression to the mean. Your daughter is an outlier at a 35 Composite, so it makes sense that she would see a lower score in Writing. We think of Writing as similar to English and Reading, but the nature of the test makes for a modest correlation.

      If Writing survives, I would really like to see a type of score choice (not that I think it will happen). Why send a score that doesn’t apply? It’s at the end of the ACT, so there is no impact on Composite scores in taking or not taking the essay. To me, it’s not that different than taking a third Subject Test on the same day. Send it if you need it or would benefit from it.

  • Karen smith says:

    Hello-I have read the above comments. My daughter ALSO bombed the Writing Portion with a 20. Her PSAT writing skills were a 65 (98%ile) Her ACT Composite is 33: English 35. Math 27 Reading 35. Science 33.

    After reading your suggestions, I will definitely pay for a Writing review. However do you think it is advantageous to sign her up again to take the ACT? For a higher composite or writing score?? With her PSAT scores, her Guidance Counselor recommending taking the SAT as well.

    Thanks for all sharing all of your experience.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      As you may have already calculated, your daughter’s ACT Composite is a “low” 33 (i.e. her avg of 32.5 was rounded up). This is important only because it means that she would need to gain 4 points to get to a 34. That sort of increase becomes increasingly difficult as students reach the top end of the scale. It is unlikely that she would bring up her Composite without bringing up her Math. Was the 27 above or below where she expected to be? Did she prepare for the test? What did her PSAT score say about her standardized testing skills in math?

      A question I usually ask is “Does she want to take the ACT again?” Her score is already 99th percentile. Scoring a 34 definitely requires motivation. An added incentive for repeat testing is her low Writing score. Since you’ve read this post, you know that Writing is less important than her other scores. That said, her 13 point differential from Composite score is unusual and could be a yellow (not a red) flag. Based on her scaled Writing score, I imagine that she had a mix of 7s and 8s on her domain scores. Someone with her grammar and reading skills should be able to bring those up to 8s and 9s and score in the mid-20s.

      If you want to kill some time learning too much about PSAT percentiles, you can read one of my other posts. The short version is that they cannot be trusted and are generally considered to be “inflated.” Knowing your daughter’s EBRW and Math scores would be helpful in weighing an SAT path. In yet another post, I discuss using PSAT scores as a rule of thumb. Unless a student with a 33 Composite is scoring in the high 1300s on the New PSAT, she is usually better off concentrating on the ACT.

      Best of luck on the re-score.

  • Ida Post says:

    My son took the test for the first time in February and got a 32 composite (English 28, Math 32, Reading 35, Science 33) He received a horrific writing score of 19. He doesn’t understand why he scored so low on the writing and expected his essay to score better. He will be taking it again in September because he is not happy with his overall composite but there is always a possibility that his college choice will superscore. My question is:
    Is there any downside to requesting a rescore for the writing apart from the fee? Could the score actually go down? Not to sound ridiculous but they seem to be all over the place with the essay and I can see a request backfiring.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Ida, this is an important question. Fortunately, it has an easy answer that should put you a little at ease. Regraded essays can be confirmed or given a high score, but they cannot be given a lower score. No, there is no downside other than the fee and the frustration. Best of luck to your son in September and with the regrading.

  • Kelly says:

    For the February 2016 test, my son got a 34 overall on the ACT with a 34 in reading and a 35 in writing. He also got a 33 score on the essay for the February 2016 test. It can be done!

  • Julie says:

    My daughter’s writing score of 16 seemed so out of line with her English and Reading scores, both 34 and a composite score of 32, as well as her own estimation of how the essay went. She is a strong writer, who has always excelled in her rigorous English classes and writes regularly for a national publication. So we have been advised to have her writing section re-scored. The thought that the fifty dollars and the insider knowledge required to take this step keeps this solution out of reach for many students, is disgusting to me.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Although we have seen similar scoring circumstances, the 16 does seem out of line. As for your disgust with the rescoring process, the sentiment is widely shared (you may have guessed that I am among those sharers). I do think it’s worth putting that disgust aside in this case and going through the process. Maybe it will make you feel better to know that given the manual labor required to deal with rescoring the essay, ACT may be losing money on the deal. And the more students who sign up for the service, the more embarrassing things are for the organization. If you’ve read this far in our blog, you know that her 32 Composite is the most important score, and her writing in a national publication will impress most admission officers far more than a higher ACT Writing score.

  • Rich says:

    My daughter( junior) has taken the ACT twice in fall ( Sept,Oct ) and scored a 32 composite (35 english /reading, 30 science,29 math 24 writing) then 2 weeks later scored a 33 composite (34 english /reading 32 science/Math and 35 writing) Her superscore is a 34…. She took psat -1430 ( 750 math 750 english 620 writing , 212 index) score which hopefully should qualify from Utah. She has 4.0/4.0 ( 5 AP’S so far 5.0 score on first one last yr) with tons of Leadership and extracurriculars including published medical research as well as playing in the nation soccer league ( ECNL ). She has five schools she is interested in – Yale, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Princeton and Swathmore. She is pursuing the soccer side with those schools which may or may not hit. Should she risk a lower writing score trying to obtain her superscore of 34 on one test or is her best performance 33 composite 35 writing close enough that it would not make a significant difference. Also should she prep and take SAT . Each of the a fore mentioned schools have both her tests as the soccer piece has required that info to be sent in. Also, we know, Hopkins and Swarthmore do superscore. Thank – you for your valued incite.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The fact that your daughter had a 24 and 35 so close together is the perfect example of the silliness of ACT Writing as a stable measure. The great news is that she has shown how well she can do on ACT Writing, so I would not consider the essay as a factor in her retest decision. It’s unlikely that a single-test 34 would change her admission profile versus her 33 or her superscored 34, but many students just feel more confident during the application process if they’ve made an effort to put everything together. It sounds like your daughter has a lot going on, though, and she will want to fit in an SAT. It’s likely that her 212 SI will qualify her for Semifinalist honors in Utah, and she will want to have a confirming score in order to continue on to the Finalist stage. She would probably reach the requisite level (undetermined as of today, but probably in the 1300-1350 range) without any test prep. Her PSAT scores indicate strong potential for the SAT, so prep could prove worthwhile. The 620 Writing is particularly interesting; it seems low relative to her ACT English score, and the skills are largely the same. [As an aside, I am wondering if you are quoting concordant scores for the old SAT, since those exact Reading and Writing scores are not possible on the new PSAT.] If she has not done so already, she should choose a spring SAT date and then decide whether or not prep fits in with her plans. It certainly sounds like she will be putting forth a wonderful application given her achievements.

  • Elizabeth says:

    My son took the ACT in October and February. In October, he forgot his calculator (don’t ask) and ended up with scores of English:35; Math: 28; Science: 32; Reading;30 for a composite of 31. Unfortunately, his writing was a 20. As we expected in February, his Math score went up, but somehow his reading dropped and he still ended up with a composite of 31. Scores were: English: 34; Math: 32: Science: 34; Reading 23. His writing went up a little to a 23. I am not really sure what happened, but he said he ran out of time on the Reading section. Is it worth taking one more time to try and get one sitting with all high scores? So far, it looks like the schools he is interested in will superscore, but the lower Reading score concerns him and he still isn’t happy with the writing score. He wasn’t going to take the SAT at all, but when we realized his PSAT put him at the 99th percentile in all categories (index 216/score 1450) he decided he should go ahead and get a qualifying SAT score, just in case he made the cutoff for National Merit. He took the (new) SAT in March. My thought is to wait and get the SAT scores back, and see if they are high enough across the board use just that sitting and if not, retake one of the tests in June. Since SAT scores won’t be available till mid-May, that would not give him much time to prep, but we would really like to have all testing done before the summer. Thanks, we appreciate any advice.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It sounds like you and your son have mapped out a great plan. In fact, I don’t think that I can offer an improvement. He’ll almost certainly score high enough on the March SAT to have a confirming score in case he reaches the National Merit Semifinalist cutoff in your state.

      It is not easy to maintain peak performance on every ACT subject, so we often see tricky situations like your son’s. We won’t know until mid-May what the final College Board concordances show, but our estimates are that your son performed slightly better on the PSAT (1450) than on the ACT (31). His superscored 33 Composite would be very similar to the 1450. Since the late release date for the March SAT narrows his test prep options, it may be best for him to decide now which test he wants to get ready for in June. He can adjust his plans based on the March scores. I wouldn’t recommend a retake solely to improve the 23 Writing. As for the Reading, colleges that superscore the ACT are making a commitment to recognize a student’s best performances; he has shown what he can do. Unless he plans on widening his application list to schools that do not superscore the ACT, a June SAT may make a lot of sense. He has already locked up an excellent ACT score and improving to a 34 would require a lot of things to come together. His PSAT score indicates great potential on the SAT, and adding a June test would give him the ability to superscore his March and June scores. As you say, he is in an excellent position to finish things up before the summer.

  • Emily Guo says:

    I took the ACT in September, and my writing score was a 26 and I got a 32 composite. I took it again in December, and my writing score went down to a 24, and my composite was 33. I took it for the final time in February, and my composite was a 34, but my writing dropped all the way down to an 18…..Should I just send my September and February scores since my September has a higher writing score? How important even is the writing score in the college admissions process? I don’t think it’s worth retaking or anything..

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I surveyed several testing experts and even there I did not find complete agreement. The majority agreed with your plan for September and February. A minority pointed out that there is a case for submitting only December. Your composite is strong, and a 24 is certainly not a red flag. Overall, I think Sept/Feb makes sense. Colleges understand that students can have an off day for the essay, and it would be a shame not to include your best Composite. Many colleges are dropping the Writing requirement for the class of 2017, so it’s likely that some schools to which you apply will not even care. And no one on the college side would place as much emphasis on Writing as on the Big Four. I’m glad that you feel that it is not worth retaking. That seems like a sane and sensible decision.

      • Jeff Spence says:

        My son recently got ACT test score results. He got a 28 composite on the math and english, but on the writing essay he got a 15! Should we retake ACT’s again or just assume college admissions folks know there are issues with the new writing prompt format? It was optional to take the test, wish we didn’t take it now. Thanks Jeff S.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          ACT has really made a mess of things. The 1-36 scale gives the Writing test a sense of precision that it doesn’t deserve. As much as colleges sort of get the unreliability of scores, it’s not always a given. Even the “optional” part is tricky. Most “Writing required” colleges don’t allow mixing and matching of essay and non-essay scores, so it almost forces students to choose the essay in order not to waste a good Composite. But if your son applies to colleges that don’t require the essay, he is not able to simply withhold that score. The combination of college and ACT policies has put students in a bind. My recommendation would be a retest. Given that your son is presumably a junior, he has spring and fall dates still available, so he should be able to find one that works into his schedule without too much disruption. See if you are able to get his essay from his high school (they can sign up for a free service) so that he can better understand where he fell short. And there is the option to request a rescore for a $50 fee. That needs to be done within 3 months of the test. Good luck!

  • J Kronrod says:

    My son received a 34 on the writing portion and a … 19???? on the essay with all 7s. Is this typical? He received a 5 last year on the AP English Language test. Something seems out of whack. He’ll take it again (he will anyway to improve his math and science scores), but I’m wondering if we should we ask for a rescore, although I’m loathe to send them another $50.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I think you mean a 34 on English or Reading (great score!); The essay is called ACT Writing. Although Writing scores are typically lower than English scores, your son’s score is more of an outlier than most. It demonstrates how unreliable the new scale is. The 7 means that your son’s readers disagreed on every domain (one giving a 3 and one a 4), and the multiple domains compounds the difference between 7/7/7/7 and 8/8/8/8. One thing to consider is getting a copy of his test to make your own assessment as to whether regrading is worthwhile. Unfortunately, ACT does not make essays directly available to students. It does, however, make them freely — but not automatically — available to schools. You or your son can talk to your counselor about this service: http://www.actstudent.org/faq/viewessay.html.

      It sounds like your son has solid plans for a retake, so the 19 may prove meaningless. He should be sure to practice the format of the new essay. A student can be an excellent writer but miss the mark when it comes to meeting readers’ expectations. Not to ACT bash — College Board has its own problems — but it is not clear that even the readers know the readers’ expectations. Best of luck to your son on his next test!

      • J Kronrod says:

        It was a 34 on English, 33 on Reading with a 19 on the Writing. Unfortunately, we home school, so the view essay option is likely closed to us. Thanks for the confirmation that this score appears to be an “outlier.” It’s obvious he’s going to have to do some more work ….

  • Michael says:

    I got all 8’s on my essay which is a 23. But I had a 31 composite score. Should I retake it?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I wouldn’t want to make a decision for you, but I will say that based on what we have seen in the data from ACT and from other students is that your score is not abnormal. I’d look at your performance as a whole: “Can I do better?” I would not recommend retaking *only* because of Writing — especially if you think the 31 composite is at the high end of your range. Writing is not as important as your other scores, and many colleges are dropping their essay requirement. Keep in mind that many schools will evaluate you on your best ACT performance, so retaking is not high risk. Great job and good luck.

  • Suzy says:

    I sat for the October ’15 ACT and am struggling with my Writing test score as well. My domain scores were all 10’s and my Writing score was 29. I read the Test Score and the Scoring Rubric sections on the ACT website and I am still unclear how the four domain scores are combined and scaled to 36. How should I view this Writing Test Score? FWIW my English and Reading scores were each 36. Thank you in advance for your response.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Suzy, great scores! You can think of the domain score total as the raw score you might earn on another section. For example, 46 points on the ACT Math might scale to a 29 on one test date. Because of slight differences in test difficulty, though, 46 raw points might scale to a 30 on another form. The same idea holds for Writing. Different prompts can have different difficulties in the same way that different Math tests do. On the October ACT, your 40 points scaled to a 29. The problem with ACT Writing is that the 1-36 scores do not behave the same as on the other tests. The mean is several points lower, and the reliability is significantly lower than for other subjects. According to the research report recently put out by ACT, your 10/10/10/10 is actually about average for a student scoring a 36 on Reading. In other words, you did just fine and many students with your Reading and English scores did similarly.

  • Ling Hao says:

    Your comments on new ACT writing test are very important to the kids. I am totally confused with the new ACT writing score system. For example, my son’s schoolmate got subscores of 10, 10, 10, and 10 with the writing composite score of 31. In contrast, my son got subscores of 11, 10, 10, and 12 with the writing composite score of 29. The problem is I have no mean to talk to them directly over phone as the phone line gives the message indicating too many phone calls has jammed up its phone line completely no matter how many times I tried. I hope you may shed some light on this issue with your expertise.

    Many thanks.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Ling Hao,
      The 1-36 score for Writing is a scaled score that will vary from test to test. This is similar to how the September Math test might have an “easier” curve than December. Some prompts produce higher raw scores in the four domains. Did you son and his schoolmate take the same test date and write on the same essay prompt? For which test was this? For the September exam, a 10, 10, 10, 10 would definitely not have produced a Writing scaled score of 31 (Writing scores are not “composite” scores). Are you sure that you are looking at the Writing score along and not the ELA score that combines Reading, English, and Writing? In short, there are a number of possible explanations. Good luck in reaching ACT.

      • Ricky Lee says:

        I like your site. I just read through all these ACT essay scoring posts; I’m posting here because of the score similarity with the above poster. I’m really confused now, as the ACT has the online “Preparing for the ACT 2015-2016” guide that explains how to score the essay writing test (pages 59-62) and refers to the rubric on page 59. My son had a Dec. 2015 ACT essay score of 29, with domain writing scores (in order) of 11, 10, 10 12, for a raw score of 43. The rubric says to take the raw scores and use the graph (42-43) to get the scaled score of 33. Not a 29. Do they not use their own graph that they provide, and instead base the scaled score on the varied results of different test dates?

        • Art Sawyer says:

          The essay and scoring in Preparing for the ACT are not from an operational exam. In other words, they are simply estimates. One of the rationales behind scaling the ACT Writing — as opposed to simply providing the student with the 4 domain scores — is to adjust for the varying difficulty in prompts. This seems odd, at first, but it turns out that one prompt may result in somewhat higher scores than another prompt in the same way that one set of math questions may be slightly easier than another. The raw-to-scaled score table shows how the scores are related for a single exam, but that table is different for every test. Normally things do not vary by more than a point or two, but nothing has been normal about the new exam. I think the table used in Preparing is too generous. For example, we saw that in September a 44 scaled to a 31, which is similar to your son’s 43 in December scaling to a 29.

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