The “Fifth Column” on the New SAT

August 27, 2018
Category: Random Thoughts

Here is some important information from my mentor and colleague, Dr. Kuni Beasley.  Hope you enjoy!

Dr. Kuni Michael Beasley
May 5, 2018

A quote from an email from a student who took the SAT this morning (May 5, 2018): “How come section 5 on the SAT has different questions for different students?”

Looks like the College Board is not being transparent… AGAIN! Since early afternoon, several of my students have reported they took a “fifth” section, an additional 20-minute section with Reading, Writing, or Math. This question has popped up occasionally because it appears the SAT is not consistent when they administer a “fifth” section.

As of this writing, I can find no official announcement or information about this “fifth” section on the College Board website. Furthermore, I am the Dean of a College Prep Academy and I do not have any official information sent to my school about this “fifth” section.

They Did This Before

In previous evolutions of the SAT, the College Board was pretty straight forward in their use of the “Experimental” section (aka “Equating” section) where questions were “pretested” to determine suitability for use in an actual test. The 2005-2015 SAT had 10 sections on the test, with 9 “real” sections and one “Experimental” section. The “Experimental” section could be Reading, Math, or Writing, and there were no clues to determine which section it was. It was clear that the section would not be used in the student’s score, even though the student didn’t know which section it was, so the student had to pursue each section as if it was a “real” section.

We could find out which section didn’t count later when students received the SAT Question and Answer Service (QAS) offered for the October, March, and May testing dates. Ordering the QAS (an additional $18), the student receives a copy of the test booklet of the exact test the student took along with the student’s answers, the correct answers, and the “level of difficulty” of each question. The QAS did not contain the “Experimental” section. There was simply a page with the statement “Section “X” Omitted” indicating that section was the “Experimental” section. This is also true when the SAT sells its book of actual SATs and you can see sections omitted in these reproduced tests.

The “level of difficulty” was based on ratio students who missed the question verses those who go it correct when it was “pretested.” Difficulty was not comparing an arithmetic problem with a trig question; it was a function of how many missed the “pretest” question in the test. Questions more students missed were considered more “difficult.”

To make questions more “difficult,” SAT test writers made questions more “tricky;” making simple math questions more difficult by inserting some trivial element that increased the propensity that someone would miss the trivia and get the question incorrect. Thankfully, the ACT didn’t do this.

“Lies” of Omission

In courtroom testimony the witness must swear to:

  • Tell the Truth ( i.e. not lie)
  • … the WHOLE Truth… (don’t withhold any part of the Truth (Lie of Omission)
  • … and Nothing but the Truth (no conjecture, no opinion, no irrelevant information.

What I have gleaned from other college prep professionals, buried deep in an SAT publication is the following statement starting on page 4 and continuing to page 5:

… Before appearing in a test form that will count toward a student’s score, every potential SAT question is:

… Pretested on a diverse sample of students under live testing conditions for analysis by subgroups. 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 op-erational and pretest items.

March-June 2018 Advising and Admission Handbook for the Redesigned SAT and SAT Subject Tests

Although… technically… the College Board placed a vague reference to this process buried deep in an earlier publication, something of this magnitude should have been better publicized and made clear to schools and students alike so we would not be getting questions like the one my student sent. Educators should have had sufficient in-formation about this to properly inform students.

The Game of Semantics

There are two important terms used here: “operational” and “pretest.” We are not given any explanation or definition for these terms so I have to rely on context, the interpretations of others who have shared their thoughts online, and my 30+ years of institutional knowledge of the SAT.

Let’s start with:
“…every potential SAT questions is… Pretested on a diverse sample of students under live testing conditions for analysis by subgroups…”

Although I have two doctorates – one in language and one is administration – I am hard-pressed to understand this statement, but I will try.


“Pretest” I assume means that trial questions would be inserted into actual SAT tests, but not counted toward the score, to determine if that question (or a derivative) should be used on a subsequent test for score, and possibly, based on past SAT administration practices, determine relative difficulty. I have to depend on my institutional knowledge because this is what they did prior to the current “Redesigned” SAT and at that time everybody was clear that this was being done. We are not so clear now.


“Operational” has no definition in any College Board information that I can find. Most who comment on this on the internet believe this means the questions that actually count towards the score, and I will use this definition until the College Board clarifies this.

A Shell Game of Questions

The use of these terms and definitions provokes a haunting specter when we read this part of the SAT statement: Any section of the SAT may contain both operational and pretest items. “Any section?” This could mean that “pretest” questions could be placed in any of the four regular sections of the SAT. Again, students wouldn’t know which questions are “pretest” or “operational,” but even a worse scenario is possible.

The “fifth” section could contain “operational” questions – questions that count towards the score. Read the statement – “ANY Section…!” Considering what I consider a significant lack of integrity on the part of the College Board in this issue, the questions in the “fifth” section could be a mix of “pretest” and “operational” questions, with “pretest” questions inserted in place of “operational” questions in the regular four sections and “operational” ques-tions in the “fifth” section.

The average student, not informed of this deceptive “shell-game” played by the SAT, might not think the “fifth” section counts towards their score and not apply themselves appropriately.

What Students Should Know & Do

1 – Students who do not take the Essay or do not have accommodations may have a “fifth” 20 minute SAT section.
2 – This section may have Reading, Writing, or Math questions, and students in the same test room may have dif-ferent questions in the “fifth” section.
3 – “Pretest” questions may be in the standard four SAT sections, but you won’t know which one they are.
4 – It is likely that whatever type of questions you have in the “fifth” section may have swapped-out “pretest” and “operational” questions with the corresponding section in the regular four sections. This means if you have Reading questions in the “fifth” section, it is likely several (or maybe all – we don’t know) of the questions in the “fifth” section are “operational” and count towards your score.
5 – Don’t blow off the “fifth” section. Assume several (or even all – we don’t know) of the questions are “operational” and will count towards your score. Take this like it is a real section because it probably is.
6 – Beware of other untold twists in the SAT. Pay attention during the test because you might be informed during the test for the first time of some new twist SAT has put to the test without the courtesy of being pre-informed.

SAT is in Second Place

In 2012, for the first time (and every year since), more students took the ACT than the SAT. The College Board reacted by bringing in David Coleman, often referred to as the “Architect of the Common Core,” as President of the College Board. The Common Core has been a very controversial subject, but it is David Coleman’s agenda. Although some states adopted the Common Core, several states did not. With Coleman at the head of the College Board that oversees the SAT, SAT Subject Exams, Advanced Placement, CLEP, PSAT, and National Merit Scholarship Qualification, he instituted the Common Core across the whole nation by fiat by including it into all the College Board tests, thus requiring all states to use it if their students are going to take the SAT. Quite a coup.

Shortly after, Cindie Schmeiser, former President of the ACT Education Division, left ACT and joined SAT as Chief of Assessment, taking many of the ACT test writers with her, which could explain why the new SAT looks a lot like the ACT.

There’s a reason why SAT is in second place. There’s a reason why more students (and advisors) favor the ACT. The SAT is working hard to make things more complicated, more confusing, less accurate, and less relevant.

Cindie Schmeiser


Why do this? Why make this more confusing? Why the “shell-game?” Why the need to resort to “tricks” on this test? Why the conscious lack of information and emphasis? How does this better measure a student’s perfor-mance?”

I have no answers.

Links and References

Dr. Kuni Beasley

Dr. Beasley has been the Dean of the NEW College Preparatory Academy since 1996 and the founder of Beasley College Prep, LLC. He is a retired Army Officer, spent 16 years as a college professor, and coached high school football (team won the 1994 Texas AAA State Champion-ship). His corporate experience includes the Federal Reserve Bank, Caltex Petroleum, and United Way of America. He has earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from Texas Christian University, a Masters of Business Administration from Oklahoma City University, a Graduate Certificate in Computer-Based Training from the University of Michigan, a Doctor of Ministry in Greek and Hebrew from Tyndale Seminary, and a Ph. D. in Urban and Public Administration from the University of Texas at Arlington.