So… the ACT now has six sections?

Students who took the September 8th ACT were surprised to see an extra section. In addition to the usual English, Math, Reading, Science, and (optional) Writing, they were given a shorter, sixth section. Some students got another helping of math, some read an extra passage, and some confronted an unexpected dosage of science.

This extra, experimental section has been administered to random students since June, but it now looks like it’s a mainstay of the exam. ACT first announced this change in a briefing sent to test administrators, alongside information about changes to extended time procedures:

“We are expanding the Tryout program, which helps shape the future of the ACT. On National test dates, examinees testing under standard timing conditions, whether testing with or without writing, should expect to take a fifth test after Test 4. The fifth test is 20 minutes long and doesn’t impact the examinee’s ACT Composite score or subject test scores. Examinees testing with extended time will not take the fifth test.”

Because this Tryout section will not affect scores, many students may want to nap or take a brain break during this section. The rare student may feel an altruistic desire to help the ACT conduct research, joining ACT’s call to action to help improve the test for future test-takers.

However, we caution students from the mindset that this is a throwaway. As it is currently administered, the Tryout ACT section is easily to identify – it’s only 20 minutes long and comes at the end. (Another admissions exam, the SSAT, retains an abbreviated experimental section at the end of the test as well.) But the pre-2016 SAT used to have a rotating experimental section nearly identical to the others, and continued to employ one for a subset of test-takers after the 2016 redesign. It’s entirely possible that either ACT’s Tryout section or SAT’s experimental section will come to resemble the other scored sections. In that case, misidentifying an experimental section would put your score at jeopardy.

That being said, the Tryout section may take an extra 20 minutes of mental endurance, so prepare accordingly. You got this!

From an industry perspective, this mandatory “Tryout program” has a couple of implications:

  • ACT is learning from College Board’s June SAT mistake. ACT wants to research new ways of writing questions and administering each of their sections, presumably so that they can create reliable new material in a faster, more cost-effective way.
  • This may also provide more predictable exams: test prep professionals who have seen many iterations of an ACT test generally agree that the difficulty of the ACT math section has been wildly unpredictable of late. While the curve that converts a raw score into a scale score ostensibly ensures fairness across test dates, it’s likely the ACT prefers to eliminate the variability and deliver a test of similar difficulty each time.
  • ACT may be trying out different content emphases or redesign test sections – in the face of pressure to become a true achievement test (rather than a norm-referenced test) they may want to prioritize certain components over others. However, they need to know exactly how students will perform on these variations so they can ensure the integrity of the ACT, and in particular the percentile breakdown of ACT scores, across different graduating classes of students
  • As The Princeton Review’s blog speculated in May, experimental sections give the test-makers not only additional data, but (in dire straits) additional student performance to use in the case of invalidated “real” sections. Given the SAT hiccups this year, we are not surprised to see both College Board and ACT begin to build fail-safe into their test designs.
  • Lastly, we expect big moves from the ACT in the coming years – since 2015, they’ve closed 10 deals in which the company has invested in, acquired, or formed strategic partnerships with educational companies. The latest one was Open Assessment Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup that offers open-source tools for building and delivering digital tests. The ACT may go entirely digital, and they may expand to other other markets. Just like Facebook and Google, harvesting student data (which, in this case, data about student performance on ACT-like problems) is a valuable commodity in this game.
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