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What Is the SAT Experimental Section?


In many regards, College Board has made the SAT a lot more transparent. As of March 2016, the majority of the test has a very clear and consistent format - with one exception. In recent months, some students encountered an unexpected 20-minute experimental section at the end of their tests.

This guide will explain everything we know so far about this experimental section and how it differs from the experimental section on tests past. Read on to learn about this extra material and what it means for your test prep. 


What's the SAT Experimental Section?

For many months leading up the new SAT, students and SAT experts thought the redesigned test had eliminated the experimental section. College Board made no mention of it, and the free practice tests it released featured no trace of extra questions.

Then, on February 4th, just a month before the new SAT was set to debut, a College Board official said in a conference for test center coordinators in Boston that some students would get an experimental section. College Board didn't elaborate much further on what this meant.

When counselors received their Advising and Admission Handbook, they saw these instructions:

"The SAT given in a standard testing room (to students with no testing accommodations) consists of four components — five if the optional 50-minute Essay is taken — with each component timed separately. The timed portion of the SAT with Essay (excluding breaks) is three hours and 50 minutes. To allow for pretesting, some students taking the SAT with no Essay will take a fifth, 20-minute section. Any section of the SAT may contain both operational and pretest items."*

*Emphasis mine.

Operational items, by the way, are questions that count toward scores. Pretest items are not scored and don't factor in. Despite their declared commitment to transparency, College Board has been pretty opaque about the experimental section and whether or not it counts toward students' final scores!

When the new SAT was administered in March and May, some students got an extra 20-minute section at the end. All the students that got the experimental section had chosen not to take the essay. All students who opted for the essay section did not have the extra experimental section. It could have been Writing, Reading, or Math.

It's possible that this experimental section is unscored and meant to test out future material. It may be that College Board is being vague on this point to make sure that students still take this section seriously. If students knew it was unscored, then they might not try as hard - or even skip it completely - and then College Board wouldn't be able to test out material for future tests.

At the same time, no one seems to know yet whether or not this section indeed has "operational items." At this point, if you get an extra 20-minute section during your test, you should treat it no differently than you do the rest of the SAT.

Before getting into additional tips on how the experimental section affects your test prep, let's compare it to the experimental section on the old SAT. What was that experimental section like, and what's the purpose of experimental sections on the SAT in the first place?


What Was the Experimental Section on the Old SAT?

The experimental section on the old SAT was much more easily understood than the one on the new SAT. College Board was transparent about the fact that there was an experimental section on every SAT. All students got this extra section. It was unidentified, so they couldn't know which section it was.

The experimental, or variable, section was an extra 25-minutes that could have appeared as any subject - Math, Writing, or Critical Reading. It remained unscored, and test-takers couldn’t predict which section was the experimental one. College Board kept it unidentified so that students would take it as seriously as any other section.

In theory, the experimental section was indistinguishable from other sections of the SAT. In reality, though, and especially on test administrations immediately preceding the redesigned test, students noticed some strange questions unlike anything they’d prepared for on practice tests. Some of these unusual questions, as it turned out, resembled material that has since appeared on the redesigned SAT.

So even though past students didn't know which section was experimental, they did know to expect one. On the new SAT, many students were surprised to be met with an extra 20-minute section. So why does College Board include these extra sections on the SAT? What exactly is their purpose?


Why Are There Experimental Sections on the SAT?

In the past, the SAT experimental section was given for three main reasons: to test out future material, to ensure fairness and gauge difficulty level, and to detect any evidence of cheating. Presumably, the experimental section on the new SAT has similar purposes.

Let's look at each function in a bit more detail. 


To Test Out Future Material

College Board, or rather its contracted test developer, Educational Testing Service (ETS), used the experimental section for years to try out new questions and material for future tests. In the past, ETS mainly used this section for developing near identical tests. More recently, though, the experimental sections included especially novel question types as ETS worked toward the revamped SAT. If you took the "old" SAT in 2014 or 2015, you may have felt like an SAT guinea pig. 

The fact that College Board's been unclear about the experimental section on the new SAT suggests that it's still being used to test out future material. They want students to take it seriously, so they can get an accurate sense of the quality of their questions.

At the same time, College Board has suggested that any section on the SAT, including this extra 20-minute one, could have a combination of "operational" and "pretest" items. Therefore, we can't know for sure yet whether or not every question on the extra 20-minute section really is unscored, even though only a fraction of students are taking it.


To Ensure Fairness and Gauge Difficulty Level

In years past, ETS used the data from the experimental section to determine whether questions were fair and comparable to past tests. They also analyzed the results across gender, race, socioeconomic status, and other social categories to ensure that the questions were equally accessible to students across demographics.

Of course, many would argue that SAT scores have always correlated with levels of family income and parental education and will continue to do so. This correlation keeps the SAT and its validity a matter of controversy. It also underlies the statements given by many colleges about why they've recently adopted test optional or test flexible admissions policies.

Beyond working toward fairness, ETS also used results from the experimental section to gain insight into the levels of questions. If 80% of students got a question correct, for instance, then ETS could categorize it in the "easy" level. This understanding helped test designers select and arrange questions on new tests.

Presumably, College Board is analyzing data from the 20-minute experimental section of the SAT in a similar way. One notable difference, however, is that only students who opted out of the essay section were given this extra section. 


To Find Evidence of Cheating 

Finally, in rare cases, ETS used the experimental section to detect cheating. There have been a few cases where students gained access to questions and answers before test day. If a student performed amazingly on all sections except the experimental one, then ETS could audit the test to investigate for any unfair advantage.

Any students who had access to the test beforehand would have known which section was experimental (and probably freak out a little on the inside). But of course, the majority of students would never cheat on this important test, and they also would have been hard pressed to figure out which section was experimental.

Let's consider that last issue in some more detail. Did takers of the old SAT know which section was experimental? How obvious is it to takers of the SAT now? 




Can Test-Takers Know Which Section Is Experimental?

The answer to this question varies depending on whether students took the old SAT or are taking the redesigned SAT of today. As such, let's consider them separately, starting with takers of the SAT today (ie, in March of 2016 and after).


Taking the New SAT

Takers of the new SAT could tell which section was experimental. The new SAT has a straightforward format. It starts with a 65-minute Reading section, followed by a 35-minute Writing section. Then you get a 25-minute Math No Calculator and a 55-minute Math with Calculator. Thus the unexpected 20-minute section of unpredictable subject matter was clearly the experimental one.

Students who registered for the SAT with Essay went onto the 50-minute essay as their last section. Students who opted out of the essay likely thought they were all done, but many then had to take an extra 20-minute section. As this section was not represented in College Board's breakdown of the test and practice tests, it appeared to be the experimental one. 

Takers of the old SAT had it a little differently, as you'll see below.


Taking the Old SAT 

Takers of the old SAT, unlike many who took the new SAT, knew to expect an experimental section. However, they couldn't easily figure out which one it was. They knew that the experimental section was 25-minutes, but the old SAT also had five other 25-minute sections. 

At the end of their test, students could deduct which subject their experimental section covered, Math, Critical Reading, or Writing, by figuring out where they had extra material. However, they had no sure way of knowing which Math, Critical Reading, or Writing section was experimental.

There was one exception to this rule. While most experimental sections blended in indistinguishably from the rest of the test, a few on 2014 and 2015 tests stood out for their unusual question types.

A few students noted that they got "evidence-based" questions on Reading, which asked for the evidence to their answer to a previous question. These question types were unprecedented on the old SAT, but they later showed up in abundance on the redesigned test, as you've seen if you've taken or prepped for it at all. 

Now that you have a sense of the experimental sections on the old and new SAT, let's figure out how this extra section affects your test prep, if at all. What can you do to prepare for an extra 20-minute section of unpredictable content? 



Should the experimental section affect how you train for the SAT?


How Does the Experimental Section Affect Your Prep?

Just knowing about the experimental section is one important way to prepare for the test. If you're taking the SAT without the essay section, then don't be too surprised if you get a 20-minute section in Math, Reading, or Writing as a fifth section, after the Math with Calculator.

If you're taking the SAT with Essay, then so far it seems that you don't have to worry about the experimental section. Unfortunately, College Board hasn't been too explicit about this section, who gets it, or what it means. We'll try our best to give you advance warning if they end up adding an extra section to the SAT with Essay version of the test, too!

Besides learning about the experimental section, there are a few additional tips to consider when prepping for the SAT. 


Take All Questions Seriously

Let's say you've signed up for the SAT without the essay and made it through your first three hours of testing. Then you get an extra 20-minute section in Math, Reading, or Writing.

It might feel all too easy to blow off this section and just start filling in random bubbles. This would be a mistake, though.

College Board has said that all sections, including this 20-minute one, contain operational and pretest items. There's no way of saying for sure that your performance on these questions won't be counted toward your final scores at all.

As you saw above, College Board also used the experimental section in past years to determine the validity of scores. If you did great on other sections but bombed the experimental section, then this inconsistency raised red flags. We don't know yet whether the 20-minute section is used for these same purposes, but dismissing it as insignificant doesn't seem worth the risk! 

While you may start to feel fatigued at the end of such a long test, try your best to finish up strong. That brings us to the next tip - prepare for a longer test.


Prepare for a Longer Test 

If you're taking the SAT without the essay, then you might benefit from prepping with longer tests. Taking timed practice tests is an important part of your prep, as it allows you to hone your time management skills and get better at staying alert over a long period of testing. 

Since the experimental section adds 20 minutes, you could simulate the experience by adding extra questions to your own practice tests. There aren't actually any 20-minute sections on the official SAT practice tests - the one that comes closest is the 25-minute Math No Calculator section - so you might have to create this extra section from scratch by collecting extra practice questions.

Since the 65-minute Reading section usually has 52 questions, you could collect 16 or so to answer. For Writing, you might answer about 25 questions. Math No Calculator could stay about the same, perhaps taking away two or three questions. For the Math with Calculator, you could design a section with about 13 or 14 questions. 

Don't worry about getting the proportion of time to questions exactly right. The important point is that you add 20 minutes or so of additional testing time with SAT practice questions to train your focus over a longer period of time.

Of course, it's unclear whether all students who are taking the SAT without the essay will get an experimental section. This unpredictability leads us to our final point - stay adaptable! 


Stay Adaptable 

For the most part, you can know exactly what to expect on SAT test day, from testing procedures to the structure of the test to the types of questions you'll encounter. The main source of unpredictability is this 20-minute experimental section, which may feature additional Reading, Writing, or Math questions. 

Since College Board has historically used the experimental section to test out future material, it may add unusual question types that you're not prepared for. If you encounter something weird, try not to let it mess with your head. Just do your best and roll with the punches. 

While you can't know for sure and should take every section seriously, many items on this section might be "pretest," or unscored, anyway. At least, that's what you can tell yourself so you can keep your cool and stay confident!

Again, you can largely know what to expect on test day. As long as you practice for answering questions and managing your time, you can expect to achieve similar scores as you have on practice tests. By prepping with a plan, you can feel confident about the test, with or without an extra experimental section!


What's Next?

Are you curious about other changes to the SAT this year? Check out the ten major changes you need to know about the redesigned SAT.

Once you've familiarized yourself with the changes, you're ready to start studying! This expert guide discusses the best ways to study for the SAT.

Are you looking to home in on a particular section? Check out our ultimate study guides for the Reading section, Writing section, and Math sections of the SAT, along with our step-by-step instructions for writing the essay!



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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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