Section 5 of the SAT: What is It and is It Fair?


Emma Kingwell

Nowhere in the Official SAT Study Guide is there any mention of section 5

Emma Kingwell, Editorial Section Editor in Chief

If you haven’t heard of section 5 of the SAT, then you are not alone. But don’t panic just yet. 

For people who are not familiar with the structure of the SAT, there are 4 sections: reading, writing, math no calculator, math with calculator allowed, and an optional essay. The sections are 65 minutes, 35 minutes, 25 minutes, 55 minutes, and 50 minutes, respectively. There are two breaks: 10 minutes between reading and writing, and 5 minutes break after math with no calculator. 

This is already an extremely long test, taxing on the mind and body (especially for those who have trouble sitting still).  

The 5th section, according to the College Board, is an “experimental section,” used for research. It is 20 minutes, comes after a 2 minute break after the last math section, and each test taker randomly gets one of the sections: reading, writing, math no calc., or math with calc. 

If you were to get reading for section 5, you would have 16 questions about one passage to answer in 20 minutes. The type of passage you would get is random as well, meaning you might get a science passage or history passage or literature passage. 

But not everyone takes the 5th section; only tests on certain months and certain days are chosen to include this section.

This new 5th section was added when the SAT was redesigned on a 1600 scale (replacing the 2400 scale) in 2016, but not many people know about it.  

When this section was first introduced, the college board released a statement, saying that “The SAT will be given in a standard testing room (to students with no testing accommodations) and consist of four components — five if the optional 50-minute Essay is taken — with each component timed separately…  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.”  

The supposed goal of this section is to ensure that students are not cheating by comparing your scores to the original sections (so you should make an equal effort on all questions given to you) and to test out potential questions for future tests.

A commonly debated topic is whether this section is fair or not, and whether it is standardized or not. 

First, this section might not be fair because you cannot choose the section you get, it is still unclear whether those questions count for your score or not. 

Some people say that certain questions are counted to replace some questions from the original section; some people say that they don’t count. Since the answer to this question is still uncertain, it is clear that test-takers would still have to try their best on this section. 

The College Board has evaded these questions with irrelevant answers. In their statement, they said that “the SAT (as of March 2016) and SAT with Essay (as of March 2019) contain some questions that won’t be used to compute student scores. These questions may appear in any section. To give students the extra time to answer more questions, the tests include a fifth section with regular and pretest questions.”

Furthermore, in the past, the College Board said that people taking the essay will not be subject to taking the 5th section, but recently, they suddenly changed this without much announcement. 

Imagine how tired a student must be after finishing all 4 sections, prepared to give it their best for the 50 minute essay and then realize they have another 20 minute section to do before. 

If you take the SAT with the essay and also end up having to take section 5, including instructional time, the entire process might just take over 5 hours. And this is still not including the fact that you have to wake up early, get to the testing center, wait in line to be checked in, and wait for the other people to arrive.

The goal of the SAT is to provide a standardized evaluation of students, but is it really standardized if students have no idea whether they will get this section or not? Is it fair to demand that everyone can sit still for that many hours?

Especially if students are taking the essay, that extra 20 minutes might just cross the borderline between finishing just before exhaustion and pure mental exhaustion before finishing.

However,  you can also argue about the necessity and benefit of this section. By testing potential future SAT questions, the College Board ensures that the tests will be more fair. They likely will be able to find which questions are unclear and improve upon them.

Although this seems like a lot of information to process and a lot of stress, remember that even if the questions on section 5 count, they likely make a miniscule impact to your score, as long as you try to treat it like a real section. 

But also feel free to believe that these questions might not count at all. If they did, they would completely throw off the standardization because the time constraints and type of section are different for everyone.

So, what do you think? Is section 5 fair? Do you think the questions count? When you are preparing to take the SAT, you unfortunately will not know whether you will get the surprise of taking this section. 

But at least with this knowledge, you can be mentally prepared and the surprise of a new section will not throw you off your game.