You took the SAT or ACT and instead of four sections, you had five. Why? What happened? You were ready for four timed sections and this extra caught you by surprise.

Don’t Panic

First, don’t panic. That extra section is a way for the test writers to try out new questions. It is known as the experimental section and these experimental questions won’t be used to calculate your score.

A Little History

The College Board (SAT) has a long history of testing questions prior to using them. In the pre-2016 version of the SAT, one of the ten timed sections on the test was dedicated to experimental questions. Students spent 25 minutes working on something that looked like regular reading, math, or writing, only to find out later that a- particular section didn’t count.

Of course, College Board wanted students to put full effort into these experimental problems. I don’t know about you, but if I was told the next 25 minutes wouldn’t count, I’d take a break. So it’s no surprise that the location of the experimental section changed from test to test and wasn’t announced to test takers. This was the best way for College Board to gather large scale data on the difficulty level of individual questions— part of the key to assembling their “product”, a test that is designed to make sure not too many students produce ultra-high scores.

When the SAT changed in 2016 and settled on a four section structure with a predictable format, most students didn’t see the experimental section. It was randomly administered only to groups who were not taking the optional essay.

But the test writers just couldn’t resist the opportunity to get thousands of students around the country to test out their questions for free. (Actually, you have paid for the privilege of testing those experimental questions!) For over a year both SAT and ACT have been adding an experimental fifth section to most tests.

Test Structure with the Extra Section

This is what students have been seeing for the last couple years:

SAT

  • Sec. 1 – Reading
  • Sec. 2 – Writing (grammar)
  • Sec. 3 – No-Calculator Math
  • Sec. 4 – Math (with calculators allowed)
  • Sec. 5 – Mystery section — could be any of the types of questions listed above
  • (Optional) – written essay

The ACT follows the same pattern

  • Sec. 1 – English (grammar)
  • Sec. 2 – Math
  • Sec. 3 – Reading
  • Sec. 4 – Science
  • Sec. 5 – Mystery section — could be any of the types of questions listed above
  • (Optional) – written essay

So far students who have been approved for testing accommodations (extra time) due to physical, mental, or learning differences have NOT received the experimental mystery section.

My Advice— Take It Seriously & Do Your Best

In the pre-2016 world where experimental sections looked exactly like any other “real” section, so my advice was to take every section seriously and do your best. If you encountered any unusual questions, don’t panic; there’s always a chance those were experimental questions. The format of the SAT may have changed, but my advice hasn’t.

First, don’t be surprised if you see a fifth section on your SAT or ACT. Now you know what they are doing.

Next, take it seriously. In the past, the entire fifth section was experimental, but that could always change.

If I was in charge of testing future questions for ACT or College Board, I would mix things up a bit. For example, I’d put two sample reading passages in the reading section of either test and move the remaining two passages (the ones that would count towards your score) into section five. Students couldn’t blow off section five and I would get reliable data on the questions I wanted to test. Of course, I’m not in charge, but I promise I’m not the only one who has considered this possibility.

My point is that you should take all test questions seriously. You don’t want to ignore section five only to find out later that SAT / ACT changed how they administered the experimental questions. Always do your best.