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How to Prepare Students for the New ACT Writing Test

tmb-writing-promptThose of us involved in helping students prepare for the ACT test should know about some significant changes in the writing portion that rolled out in September. ACT calls the changes “enhancements,” and that’s probably a pretty good word because the changes are positive ones, at least in my opinion.

Here are the major changes:
1. The writing test is now 40 minutes instead of 30 minutes.
2. The format is now focused on “contemporary issues” rather than on specifically school-related topics. The first new topic, for example, was “Bad Laws.”
3. While the original ACT writing test asked students to choose and defend one side or the other of a topic, the new writing test has a wider scope. Students are now given brief perspectives on an issue, and they are required to evaluate those perspectives within a framework that includes their own point of view on the issue.
4. The scoring is different. The previous writing test holistically scored essays on a 1-12 scale and figured that into a Combined English/Writing score. The new version will score the essay 1-36, but instead of a holistic approach, the scorers will give separate ratings in four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Organization, Development and Support, and Language and Conventions. The essay score will be part of a new ELA score, which is the average of the ACT English, writing, and reading subscores.

How can we prepare students for these changes? First, we need to familiarize them with the format changes. They should know about the time change, as well as how to use the space provided on the test for planning and pre-writing. The pre-writing questions and blank space can serve as a useful checklist and “sandbox” for writers as they make sure each of the prompt’s expectations is fulfilled.

Second, we need to help students understand that the structure of this essay will be different from those written for the old test. While the old either-or writing test asked students to formulate and defend a one-dimensional opinion, the new test requires students to articulate a more sophisticated thesis. The essay’s main idea needs to be complex enough to allow evaluation of each of the provided perspectives as well the writer’s own point of view. It’s no longer “Here are three reasons why I’m right.” Now it’s more like “I believe because . Therefore, I consider Perspective A more valid, and Perspectives B and C less valid.”

The writing approach required on the new test is more in line with what college writing is actually like. The ACT is a college aptitude test, so it’s now more likely to assess a student’s preparedness for the kinds of writing he will encounter in post-secondary classes. The old version of the writing test always seemed to me like it was a high school achievement test rather than a college aptitude test.

My only concern with the new test is that the breakdown of those domain components doesn’t seem to recognize or allow for writing with exceptional style. If a student’s language is mechanically perfect but otherwise flat, what Language and Conventions subscore should she expect? I’d really like to see the rating markers within each domain of the rubric, and maybe those will eventually be made public.

Click here for ACT’s sample of the new writing test format.

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