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So… the ACT now has six sections?

Students who took the September 8th ACT were surprised to see an extra section. In addition to the usual English, Math, Reading, Science, and (optional) Writing, they were given a shorter, sixth section. Some students got another helping of math, some read an extra passage, and some confronted an unexpected dosage of science.

This extra, experimental section has been administered to random students since June, but it now looks like it’s a mainstay of the exam. ACT first announced this change in a briefing sent to test administrators, alongside information about changes to extended time procedures:

“We are expanding the Tryout program, which helps shape the future of the ACT. On National test dates, examinees testing under standard timing conditions, whether testing with or without writing, should expect to take a fifth test after Test 4. The fifth test is 20 minutes long and doesn’t impact the examinee’s ACT Composite score or subject test scores. Examinees testing with extended time will not take the fifth test.”

Because this Tryout section will not affect scores, many students may want to nap or take a brain break during this section. The rare student may feel an altruistic desire to help the ACT conduct research, joining ACT’s call to action to help improve the test for future test-takers.

However, we caution students from the mindset that this is a throwaway. As it is currently administered, the Tryout ACT section is easily to identify – it’s only 20 minutes long and comes at the end. (Another admissions exam, the SSAT, retains an abbreviated experimental section at the end of the test as well.) But the pre-2016 SAT used to have a rotating experimental section nearly identical to the others, and continued to employ one for a subset of test-takers after the 2016 redesign. It’s entirely possible that either ACT’s Tryout section or SAT’s experimental section will come to resemble the other scored sections. In that case, misidentifying an experimental section would put your score at jeopardy.

That being said, the Tryout section may take an extra 20 minutes of mental endurance, so prepare accordingly. You got this!

From an industry perspective, this mandatory “Tryout program” has a couple of implications:

  • ACT is learning from College Board’s June SAT mistake. ACT wants to research new ways of writing questions and administering each of their sections, presumably so that they can create reliable new material in a faster, more cost-effective way.
  • This may also provide more predictable exams: test prep professionals who have seen many iterations of an ACT test generally agree that the difficulty of the ACT math section has been wildly unpredictable of late. While the curve that converts a raw score into a scale score ostensibly ensures fairness across test dates, it’s likely the ACT prefers to eliminate the variability and deliver a test of similar difficulty each time.
  • ACT may be trying out different content emphases or redesign test sections – in the face of pressure to become a true achievement test (rather than a norm-referenced test) they may want to prioritize certain components over others. However, they need to know exactly how students will perform on these variations so they can ensure the integrity of the ACT, and in particular the percentile breakdown of ACT scores, across different graduating classes of students
  • As The Princeton Review’s blog speculated in May, experimental sections give the test-makers not only additional data, but (in dire straits) additional student performance to use in the case of invalidated “real” sections. Given the SAT hiccups this year, we are not surprised to see both College Board and ACT begin to build fail-safe into their test designs.
  • Lastly, we expect big moves from the ACT in the coming years – since 2015, they’ve closed 10 deals in which the company has invested in, acquired, or formed strategic partnerships with educational companies. The latest one was Open Assessment Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup that offers open-source tools for building and delivering digital tests. The ACT may go entirely digital, and they may expand to other other markets. Just like Facebook and Google, harvesting student data (which, in this case, data about student performance on ACT-like problems) is a valuable commodity in this game.

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What’s up with the August 25 SAT?

In June, College Board delivered an unusually “easy” test, resulting in more students getting more answers correct. To distribute scores in a predictable manner, the curve they used to convert raw scores into scale scores was particularly unforgiving: students overall saw lower scaled scores than they expected, especially those scoring in the upper percentiles. For example, a student who got two answers wrong in June received a 750 in math, whereas two incorrect answers on a previous exam may have equated to a 770-780.

After the #RescoreJuneSAT drama, we’re sure College Board was hoping for a straightforward and scandal-free August administration. However, news has come out that the test administered on Aug 25 may have had overlapping questions with an exam taken by students in China last October. Since October 2017, these reports claimed, tutoring centers in China had been using the test in their study materials.

It’s unlikely any test-takers had answers memorized, as they could not have anticipated the repetition. Rather, the advantage depends on how recently a student reviewed the leaked test. Familiarity with a reading passage can have huge benefits for performance since a student is already aware of the context and may remember some key arguments. Thus, seeing the test beforehand can be a huge advantage on a time-bound, difficult exam.

How did College Board end up in this debacle? Jed Applerouth muses that College Board likely pulled the test it had planned to administer in August in the wake of the June test. Standardized tests are difficult and expensive to write – so College Board couldn’t write a brand new test by August 25th; instead, they chose to administer an exam they had previously administered in Asia, banking on providing a proven exam with normalized curve. However, by solving one problem, they created a host of others.

So, what now? Here are a few important takeaways:

  • Study from official materials! North Avenue education primarily use official SAT and ACT materials, including some previously administered exams. In addition to being the most reliable sources, you never know if College Board might recycle parts of an exam again.
  • Variations such as the ones seen in June and August are normal. There’s no telling how many issues like these have gone unexposed – not to mention the number of unpredictable events that can happen to individual students (e.g., poor sleep, bad mood, closed test centers, traffic-induced stress, etc). The only solution is to be as prepared as possible and make a tutoring plan that involves re-testing.
  • If indeed some students studied from the test and it worked to their advantage, the curve used by College Board may be different than it would’ve been otherwise. We can’t know exactly how it will affect the results of this test. While some students are calling for College Board to #RescoreAugustSAT, allow the option to cancel scores with no fee or penalty, or offer an added test date before Oct 6, it remains unknown what College Board’s exact response will be.
  • Jed Applerouth is probably right – the ultimate solution to the problems of leaked and recycled tests is an online, computer-based exam. ACT anticipated this issue in 2016, when it announced plans to administer computer-based exams for all international ACT test dates. It tabled that plan for a year, but sources say it’s set to follow through on the promise starting this September. We believe College Board isn’t far behind.

Scores will begin to be released on September 7th. If you took the Aug 25 SAT and are affected, we’d love to work with you to make a plan. North Avenue Education is here to help you prepare, plan a testing timeline, and be ready for any curveballs that College Board may throw your way!

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Trouble at the Top

Is this the end of the SAT and ACT essays?

On June 1, Yale announced it was dropping the requirement that students submit an essay score from the SAT or the ACT. Now, everyone in the college admissions world is asking, “Why?”

Well, one reason is obvious: Harvard did it first. These two schools have a long history of copying each other’s admissions practices, mostly because they’re competing for the same students. Every time one school finds a policy “innovation,” the other often follows suit. Sometimes, these changes aren’t permanent, such as when Harvard eliminated, then reinstated, Early Action. To a large extent, college admissions is a social experiment, and high schools seniors, unfortunately, are the guinea pigs.

But that aside, what are these schools thinking?

According to The Washington Post, the problem is a familiar bugaboo: inequality. The Ivies have always faced accusations of elitism and snobbery, but recently these criticisms have crystallized in hard economic data about income disparity. Harvard, for instance, has almost as many students from the nation’s top 0.1 percent highest-income families as from the bottom 20 percent. Harvard, Yale, and the rest of the Ancient Eight are desperate to rectify this problem.

That’s where the SAT and ACT come in. Across the nation, many public schools now fund SAT and ACT testing during the school day, meaning students can take them at no cost. The problem is that testing programs often don’t pay for the essay sections. In other words, many students must choose between two unappealing options: 1) apply only to schools that don’t require the essay, or 2) pay to take the test all over again. Adding to the challenge, the SAT and ACT get more expensive when you take them with the essay. Yale made reference to this problem in an email: “We hope this will enable more students who participate in school-day administrations of the SAT or ACT to apply to Yale without needing to register for an additional test.”

I don’t doubt the Post’s account. But I have trouble believing this is the first time the Ivies have considered dropping the essay requirement. Here, I will suggest some possible other reasons the Ivies may give the essay the permanent boot…

Problematic Scoring

In 2016, just months after the ACT released its redesigned prompt, students reported receiving shockingly low scores. One Rhode Island student got a 19 (on the old 36-point scoring system), then paid the $50 re-scoring fee. His score improved to a 31. Such scoring inconsistencies can make the SAT and ACT essay scores feel arbitrary, inaccurate, or both.

Two years later, the percentiles remain remarkably out of whack; a 9 out of 12 on the new ACT Essay puts you in the 95th percentile.

(On a personal note, I got a perfect score on the SAT Essay when I was in high school. When the Redesigned SAT came out, I got an underwhelming 6/8 in every category.)

Overlap with AP/IB Tests

The ACT Essay, which asks students to integrate multiple viewpoints into their analysis of an issue, bears a striking resemblance to the AP Language and Composition exam. Students who’ve taken this test have already demonstrated very similar writing skills.

The Redesigned SAT Essay is a passage analysis exam, asking students to examine the stylistic and persuasive elements at use in a persuasive passage. Both the AP Language and IB English exams require students to demonstrate robust passage analysis skills, a task similar to that of the SAT Essay.

With so many students at top colleges already taking AP and IB tests, the SAT and ACT Essay sections may seem redundant.

Dubious Writing Standards

You can get away with some pretty bad writing.

In the new documentary The Test and the Art of Thinking, tutor Jed Applerouth spoke about the insanely inaccurate essay he wrote for the old SAT. I’ve quoted a sample paragraph because, well, it’s hilarious:

One example of a man who embraced the wisdom of his elders was Barack Hussein Obama, famed revolutionary of the Basque region. Young Obama unified the Basque populous, seeking to overthrow the tyranny of Franco, nationalist, totalitarian demagogue. Obama, during his 6 months he spent in jail after this first failed coup attempt, came in contact with a seasoned revolutionary, Winston Churchill. Churchill had seen decades of failed revolutionary attempts and offered his insights to Obama, his willing disciple. With Churchill’s support young Obama was able to unify the masses, instigate a popular revolution and liberate the Basque nation from Franco’s control.

This essay, which was rife with other factual errors, received a perfect score.

Also, a student in 2009 found that the length of an SAT essay was a strong predictor of score. The conclusion was supported by an MIT professor, who also offered this advice: “End with a quotation. It doesn’t even have to be correct. Just quote somebody.”

My point is this: problems with writing standards have persisted for a long time. And even though the SAT and ACT have both redesigned their prompts, these tests remain standardized and, therefore, gameable.

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So, let’s say you’re applying to Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth. Should you take the essay?

Answer: Almost certainly yes. First off, you’re a jerk if you’re only applying to Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth. (Seriously, who are you?)

Nothing in life is certain – not even if your name is on a campus building, you can row at an Olympic level, or you cured cancer. You’ll always want to apply to some safety schools. Likely, one of them will want to see an essay. And hey, Princeton and Stanford still require the essay. So unless all the schools on your list don’t ask for the essay, take it.

Also, remember that Harvard and Yale are only dropping the requirement. That doesn’t mean you still can’t submit your essays. What if you’re really good at them? It’s a lot easier to predict success on a standardized test than on the college essay. Say what you will about how we’re training our students to be mindless drones, but the fact remains: this is a teachable writing test. A perfect score always looks good.

And remember, showing your writing skills is very important on your college application. Stanford’s dean of admissions had this to say about his hesitation to drop the SAT/ACT Essay requirement: “We should treasure writing as an important skill in life and it should be a major focus [of] K-12. So the question becomes what is the alternative to assessing writing competency in the admissions process.” In other words, you NEED to show your writing ability at some point. If you aren’t president of your school’s literary club, and you haven’t written your college essay yet, maybe the SAT/ACT Essays are your best shot.

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If you need guidance, want some hands-on practice, or feel confused by the strange formats of the SAT or ACT essays, contact us about scheduling one-on-one coaching. We also help students craft thoughtful, meaningful college essays for the CommonApp and all Supplements.

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