Mar 4, 2016

College Board adds unexpected experimental section to ‘some’ SATs

William and Mary will not be requiring the Essay section of the new SAT
Thanks to some terrific reporting from Valerie Strauss, of the Washington POST and excellent by Catherine Gewertz, of Education Week, we now know that the College Board will be adding a fifth, entirely unexpected, section to the “redesigned” SAT (rSAT) administered to some students taking the new test for the first time tomorrow.

Despite repeated promises of “transparency” in the development and introduction of the rSAT, the College Board is stonewalling requests for information and steadfastly sticking to a largely unhelpful script explaining the addition of a 20-minute, multiple choice section for some students, specifically those without accommodations and those opting out of the 50-minute Essay section. 

According to information provided to Education Week by College Board spokeswoman Kate Levin, “on some test dates in some test centers, test-takers will take some pretest items that are not included in computing their scores. These items may appear in any of the sections.” The fifth section “may include either pretest or operational test items.”

For those not familiar with the jargon, “pretest” questions are experimental and don’t count toward a student’s score. “Operational” questions are those that count.

Both the SAT and the ACT have always had experimental sections—the SAT going back as far as 1926. It’s good way to field-test questions for various attributes too complicated to describe and decide which to include on future exams. 

In other words, test-takers have traditionally provided a little free research assistance for both the College Board and ACT.  Although students never knew which kind of questions they might receive, they knew for sure the section was there.  And sometimes, particularly in the last few administrations of the old SAT, it was very clear which questions were experimental and which were not.

But sensing the experimental nature of some of the questions didn’t always relieve the anxiety a student felt when encountering questions that were different from the rest. In fact, it usually increased the anxiety, which could be a real problem if the student’s mind suddenly got “out of the game.”

In the months leading up to the introduction of the rSAT, no mention was made of an experimental section leaving students prepping for the test to believe that the basic length of the exam would be 180 minutes. This impression was underscored by test prep materials made available online and through Khan Academy. And this was a good thing—a selling point for the new test.

But with the addition of a fifth 20-minute section—for some but not all students, the exam grows to 200 minutes—the same as the old SAT minus the essay.  And all the problems associated with exam fatigue potentially come into play (depending on where the experimental section is placed), along with the unsettling feeling that something is not quite right about a set of questions.

It would help if the College Board would do what ACT does and signal where the additional section will appear—beginning, middle, or end of the test. It would be even better if they would explain what they mean by the suggestion that the additional section might also include “operational” questions. 

But in absence of more guidance, here are some pointers for students taking the SAT this weekend who do not receive special accommodations and who have opted out of the essay:

  • Don’t be surprised if you have an additional 20-minute multiple choice section and your overall test-taking time grows to 200 minutes.  Plan for this eventuality by warning your parents or anyone coming to pick you up that the test may be a little longer than originally expected.
  • While the College Board isn’t disclosing when the additional section might appear, most test-prep professionals believe it will be at the end of the test. Don’t waste valuable time speculating about or anticipating the additional questions. Treat every section as if it matters.
  • There’s no telling what kinds of extra questions you may be asked. They could be math, reading or writing. It’s luck of the draw and has nothing to do with you or your skill set.
  • Don’t panic if the questions seem more difficult or slightly out of sync with the rest of the test—do your best. Keep in mind that unlike the old SAT, there are no penalties for wrong answers.  Guess if you need to.
  • Given the lack of transparency about the existence of “operational” questions in the additional section, assume every question counts even if you suspect you have pinpointed the experimental questions. Again, do your best.

“It has always been advisable for student to not even think about what material might be experimental and this is especially important now due to the uncertainty that College Board has created,” suggests Adam Ingersoll, of Compass Education Group. “Bottom line, just do your best on every section.”

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