Dear ACT, Thanks for Running up My Phone Bill.
I spend a good part of my day on the phone. Most of that time is spent helping SAT and ACT prep tutors to get the most out of our 100% custom branded test prep system. Naturally, I spend a lot of time answering questions. But lately, I've been getting the same question over and over. What's going on with the essay scoring on new ACT score reports?
That's true. And that's because the ACT has made a mess of things by changing the way essays are scored not once, but twice in the past year.
First, the folks at ACT changed the essay prompt. I applauded this move because the old prompts invited narcissism and parochial thinking. Prompting students to compose college level essays that weigh the merits of high school policies is just silly. It sets a trap for students to speak in absolutes and catastrophize every situation. Far too many students have leaned heavily on hyperbolic language and waxed on about rights and freedoms, in their efforts to write compelling essays.
Worst of all, these prompts gave students the impression that university lecture halls were echoing with fierce debate over issues that only affect high school students: open campus lunch policies, random drug testing for high school athletes, locker searches. These issues are literally never debated beyond the school student parking lot.
That said, one could easily point to a disturbing trend on many college campuses where prevailing conversations reflect the same phenomenon. Impassioned students shout at professors, administrators, and each other in what they seem to believe is an appropriate response to any perceived slight. And when nobody can be found to shout at, they shout at buildings and "occupy" the quad or the dean's office or wherever they happen to be sitting.
But I digress.
After all, this decay of free thought was not caused by the ACT's decision to use inane essay prompts. I merely relay this observation as context for my hearty endorsement of ACT's decision to implement the current, much improved, essay prompt. If you're not familiar with the current format of the ACT essay, you can check out a sample prompt on ACT practice test 1572C (Note: the ACT Writing Test begins on page 53 of the pdf).
From time to time, I get calls from tutors asking where they can find additional practice ACT essay prompts. But that's not my main gripe.
All you really need to know is that the essay prompt presents a paragraph of text examining a societal issue. These issues usually focus on a trade-off between freedom and security, individualism and collectivism, progress and its costs, or a similar dilemma. Below that paragraph are three boxes. Each contains a position, ranging from "this is great" to "the sky is falling," with the middle box typically representing an equivocation on the issue. Students are required to consider the three perspectives, state and develop their own perspective, and explain the relationship between their perspective and the three boxed perspectives. There's a bit more to it, but that's it in a nutshell.
On the whole, the move to this type of prompt marked a substantial improvement. However, the ACT also changed how the essay was scored. This second change is the cause of many of the calls we get.
Under the new scoring system, students would receive scores from 1 - 6 on each of four areas (Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use). These four scores are multiplied by two because on test day the essay will be read by two readers. Once doubled, these scores are summed to form the student's Raw Score, which can range from 8 - 48. The Raw Score is then converted to a Scale Score, which can range from 1 - 36.
Confused? Of course you are. Now try explaining this over the phone. But wait, we're just getting started.
It turned out that students immediately HATED the new scoring system. So far as I can tell, it came down to the students' perception of the scores. They didn't mind scoring 4/6 on each test domain score. That sounded okay. But once the score went through the conversion process and ended up as a 24/36, they were suddenly appalled by the low score. So the folks at the ACT reverted to the old scoring system.
And that would have been fine, had ACT not just published its new Official ACT Prep Guide with an OBSOLETE essay scoring system. Essentially, the ACT dairy knowingly shipped expired milk without any plans for a recall. Even adding an errata to the new books would have helped a lot. Sadly, they haven't done that.
As a result, I find myself on the phone more than once a week with tutors who tell me that the Clear Choice Test Prep ACT scoring system is wrong. They generally arrive at this conclusion after creating a free custom-branded test score report for a student. At which point they open their copy of the Official ACT Prep Guide to make sure that they're not wrong. That's when I get the call.
I explain that the book that they just bought is already OBSOLETE. That's right, the Official ACT Prep Guide from May 31, 2016, is already outdated. Usually, this is followed by some measure of incredulity. Then we spend a few minutes making sure we're talking about the same book. Just so we're clear, they're usually talking about this one:
not this one:
The second one was obsolete BEFORE the first copy shipped in January 2016. (More on that Later)
Sometimes I provide all the context I've shared above. Sometimes I don't. It sort of depends on whether the tutor is a power user who likes to know everything about the industry or just enough to generate and convert leads. Either way, I always share a link to the ACT's official website where they can read the following information, direct from the ACT.
This screenshot was taken Sunday, November 13th, 2016.
Check out that footnote. The information that it provides is more than a year out of date. But at least it links to the "most current information on the ACT writing test," right?
Not so much. That link takes you here:
You've got to admit that's an adorable error message.
But it doesn't help anyone find the answers to these questions. And remember, tutors shouldn't have even had to research any of this in the first place. They're on a quest to discover super-basic information about the test. And they're only looking online because the information in their newly purchased Official Guide to ACT Prep is inaccurate. That's got to be frustrating.
It's probably not as frustrating as continually having to explain all of this to tutors and test prep professionals, but still frustrating.
And it's all made worse by the fact that this isn't even the first time that ACT has put tutors in this position. Back in January of 2016, the ACT switched publishers from Peterson's to Wiley. They slapped a new cover on the old book and ostensibly released a NEW VERSION of the OLD EDITION of the Official ACT Prep Guide. That's diabolical!
The Amazon rating for this title hovered around 1.5 stars for a few months, as tutors and students who purchased the book under the misapprehension that it was actually new posted reviews that were peppered with words such as "scam" and "ripoff."
Obviously, this wasn't actually a scam, but I can understand why these buyers felt ripped off. I was one of them. Even after speaking with my contact at Peterson's to get the full scoop, I still bought a copy of the NEW/OLD Official ACT Prep Guide because the story didn't make any sense. I figured there had to be some mistake. Why would ACT go through all that trouble just to confuse their loyal user base of test prep professionals?
So when the NEW NEW Official ACT Prep Guide came out with a NEW NEW front cover at the end of May, everyone was ready. We expected the unexpected. And we were not disappointed.
This is to say that we were VERY disappointed. The book had shrunk, not in page-count but in substance, from five complete ACT tests to just three.
And the three full ACTs that were included were not entirely new. The first test (16MC1), for example, is constructed almost entirely from parts of ACT test 73C, which was administered back in June of 2015. To cap it all off, the new book is priced higher than the old one ($32.95 + $7.25 shipping). And while a few bucks doesn't matter to most students buying one book, it makes a BIG difference to tutors who used to purchase hundreds of copies of the book for use as practice tests.
The result of all this is not insignificant. A year ago, the College Board and SAT tutors were facing difficult challenges with the changeover to the new SAT. At the time, it felt like the ACT had a lot of momentum. All it had to do in order to gain market share was avoid unforced errors.
Instead, the ACT has increasingly been beaten at its own game of securing state-wide contracts (a subject for another post on another day) and has simultaneously managed to create broad confusion and dissatisfaction among tutors.
At the same time, ACT has inadvertently created financial incentives that encourage tutors to promote SAT test prep over ACT test prep. That's no small feat considering where we were a year ago. However, in the same time that the College Board has rolled out six new practice tests, the ACT has released only three partially new tests and declined to make these practice ACTs available for download through its website. Add to that the fact that the ACT's partnership with Kaplan makes it more difficult for test prep tutors to sell their services, and you can see why tutors are swinging back toward the SAT in increasing numbers.
That's what I hear from new potential clients. On the phone. Every week.
The vast majority of independent test prep tutors cannot deliver an online test prep system to compete with Kaplan. As a result, these tutors are currently incentivized to steer students away from the ACT and toward the SAT, where they can still argue that Khan Academy's free test prep is inadequate for students targeting competitive universities. Whatever ACT's motivation, the test maker has unintentionally alienated many of the independent tutors who once made up its volunteer sales force.
So what happens next? Well, I'm sorry to say that in keeping with the theme the future is mostly unclear. In fact, I'd be grateful to anyone in the tutoring and test prep community who has some additional insight on the matter. Speculation is fine too. Just be careful to differentiate the two. Please leave a comment with any insight beyond what I've cobbled together here. Please feel free to leave a comment if you're aware of any timeline or general strategy for the ACT to clean up this mess, provide clarity, and create new ACT practice tests.
In the meantime, I expect my phone to continue ringing off the hook with tutors asking for some clarification on the ACT's essay scoring, practice tests, official ACT prep guide, and general strategy.
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