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SAT maker plans new test to assess 8th-grade students

Backers say identifying potential early boosts college readiness. But critics worry another exam will add pressure.

August 08, 2008|Gale Holland | Times Staff Writer

High school students already face a battery of standardized tests on their way to college. Now, the college testing frenzy is reaching into middle school.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, PSAT and other tests, plans to introduce an eighth-grade college assessment exam in 2010, a top College Board official said this week.

The new test would be voluntary, said Wayne Camara, the vice president for research and analysis at the New York-based nonprofit, who spoke at a college enrollment conference at USC early this week. But critics noted that the PSAT, which also is voluntary, was taken last year by 3.4 million students, and said the new test would just boost the pressures for students considering college.

High school students now can take the PSAT in 10th or 11th grade to practice for the SAT college entrance exam and to qualify for educational aid programs including the National Merit Scholarship. But younger students have been signing up for the PSAT in growing numbers, perhaps to establish eligibility for gifted or enrichment programs, or to measure college readiness.

The new test would be tailored to eighth-graders. And it would put students on notice to start lining up the rigorous courses required by selective colleges, Camara said.

"By the time they're taking the PSAT, it's much too late to determine whether they should be taking algebra in the eighth grade, biology, and other important gatekeeper classes needed for college," he said. "This test will help schools identify students who have some talent and could likely succeed if they take honors or AP courses, but have not been recognized."

Some Southern California educators said they welcome the opportunity to get students, particularly African Americans and Latinos who are underrepresented in higher education, into the college game early.

Los Angeles Unified School District Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he has proposed that the district offer all eighth-graders the chance to take the PSAT beginning next year, as many top private schools do. "Polytechnic, Westridge, Harvard-Westlake all do," Cortines said. "Just because you go to a public school you should still have the same opportunities."

Honey Koletty, a college counselor at Carson High School, agreed: "If you want your kid to go to a highly selective institution, you really do have to know in the eighth grade."

But critics questioned whether the College Board, whose SAT test is coming under increasing scrutiny from universities, is pushing the admissions frenzy into middle school simply to boost its revenue. The exam will compete with testing rival ACT's Explore, an eighth-grade assessment test used in Long Beach Unified School District and schools across Southern California, an ACT spokesman said.

Nearly 1 million students took the Explore test in the 2005-06 school year, the spokesman said.

"It's a brilliant marketing ploy, but it's pure Pablum," Paul Kanarek, head of the Princeton Review test prep service in Southern California, said of the College Board's pitch for the eighth-grade exam. "They're locked in a death match with ACT over who takes the ACT or the SAT. Once you buy into a certain product line, you're likely to stick with it."

Camara said the exam, which has not been named, is now undergoing field development tests. It will be multiple-choice and will cover critical reading, math and writing. A spokeswoman for the College Board said it was too early to provide other details about its content.

Colleges would not use the exam's results, Camara said. "The test is given in the eighth grade," he said. "By the time they apply to school, [the results] would not be relevant."

Russlyn Ali, executive director of Education Trust-West, the Oakland arm of a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to improving education, said many California public school students are first-generation college aspirants who lack the background and information to map out their own routes to higher education.

"That plays out in kids' real lives; most of them are taking a hodgepodge of classes . . . and by the end of 11th grade it's too late," Ali said.

Princeton Review's Kanarek, however, said eighth grade is too late to begin pulling together a college prep portfolio.

"Eighth grade is not the key year for college assessment. That's sixth grade," he said.

"Now we're going to have a preadmission test to get ready for the preadmission test? Get ready to get ready to get ready?" said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Cambridge, Mass.-based FairTest, which is critical of standardized testing. "To believe you need an eighth-grade test on top of the PSAT and SAT is just insane."

Cortines said he welcomes the new test, as it will focus families and teachers on what students need to succeed. The deputy superintendent said he has asked the board to budget $125,000 for eighth-grade PSAT tests in the coming school year.

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