The SAT & ACT Experimental Questions: What You Need to Know

July 12, 2019 

Students, parents, and educators think a lot about standardized testing. Starting in sophomore year of high school, the SAT and ACT loom large. Which test promises more success? What will be on each section? How can a student best prepare?

Student reading notes at the beach

A question less frequently asked is “Who writes the tests?” This question is more relevant than you might think. SAT/ACT development directly relates to experimental test sections and how to approach them.

According to the College Board, “The SAT is built on a solid foundation developed through research and collaboration with higher education professionals.” Test developers write questions that are submitted to a Development Committee. After that, “[a]t least 12 professional test developers and educators review every SAT question.”

The ACT is crafted in a similarly rigorous manner.

Where does the experimental part come in? How does this affect Sasha Student?

Before a question “goes live,” it’s necessary to test it with what ACT calls, “samples of the national examinee population” during “an operational administration.” In other words, some of the questions you answer on the exam don’t count towards your score. They are purely for the purpose of research.

How can you determine if a question is experimental? The ACT contains a 20-minute experimental section that is easily located “just after the Science section,”  but before the optional ACT Writing (Essay) section. The good news is that it will come after all of the questions that actually count towards your score.

Unfortunately, the College Board is a bit cagier about the placement of their experimental questions and the structure of their sections. According to College Board:

“Your SAT test may contain an additional 20-minute section. We occasionally pre-test new test items to determine if they should be used on future SAT test forms. Pre-test items can appear in any section and are not included in computing students’ scores. This means that test time is extended by 20 minutes for students taking both the SAT and the SAT with Essay. If there will be a fifth section, the test center supervisor will share instructions before the test begins.”

So students can expect to see experimental questions on any section of the SAT except the essay section. And it’s likely that students will have an extra 20-minute fifth section, which may contain a combination of “live” and experimental questions.

Confused yet? Some educators theorize that the College Board is being deliberately vague in an attempt to encourage students to spend as much energy on experimental questions as they do on “live” questions.

Which brings us to our next point…

Once you have recognized an experimental question (or section), what do you do with it?

Our suggestion is to take these questions seriously but not to stress. Since identifying the experimental questions on the ACT is not a problem (they are all located in the fifth section), you can relax but still try to do your best.

On the SAT, where it’s not as easy to identify experimental questions, we recommend that you remain focused and stay sharp. However, if you are at or near your energy limit (and remember, both the ACT and SAT are endurance tests), take a short break (15 to 30 seconds) and then regroup.

In truth, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the problem of experimental questions. A proactive solution would be to first decide which test you think best shows your skills on the active sections. You can then discuss the experimental question issue with your tutor or a member of the A+ staff. Keep things in perspective; remember that no matter what approach you take, these questions will not affect your final score.


At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our focus is always on you. Our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. Our outstanding tutors can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you would like more information, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware are available to answer questions and provide solutions. You may reach either of them by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188.


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