Taking the SAT, Graduating Middle School
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. These days more than 100,000 students are taking the SAT test in middle school. Some students are under pressure to get ready for college no matter how early. And some want to qualify for prestigious summer programs like the one at Johns Hopkins University. NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER reporting:
On the surface it looks like yet another escalation in the continuing college arms race. And when you talk to some companies that make their money by prepping kids for the SAT, that impression holds.
Roger Israni works for the Texas-based company TestMasters. He says some 200 7th and 8th graders got coached in their SAT course this past year. And while 7th grade might seem a bit early…
Mr. ROGER ISRANI (Test Masters Employee): A lot of parents are professionals. They're aggressive to get their kids into the best colleges. Many of them actually have their kids take the SATs over and over again.
ADLER: In fact a few kids take them.
Mr. ISRANI: Every month.
ADLER: Every month?
Mr. ISRANI: Every month, 7th and 8th grade.
ADLER: Nationally, about 120,000 7th and 8th graders take the SAT, but many of those students take the test for a different reason. To get into rigorous summer programs in math, science and the humanities run by colleges like Johns Hopkins, Duke and Northwester.
Cody Jones is now a 9th grader in Knoxville, Tennessee, who took the SAT to qualify for the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins. He didn't take a prep course. Did he prepare?
Mr. CODY JONES (9th Grader, Knoxville, Tennessee): Not at all.
ADLER: Not at all? You didn't go out and buy a book in Barnes & Noble and…
Mr. JONES: I did, but I never used it. I was busy and it didn't really matter whether or not I made it. I actually don't remember what I got.
ADLER: In the past, 8th graders have needed a score of 560 or higher on the verbal SAT for humanities classes at CTY, and a score of 580 or higher in math for the math and science classes. This will be Cody Jones's second summer at CTY, and he will be studying existentialism.
Sarah Gitlen(ph) and Josh Rives(ph), two students at the Dalton School in New York, said taking the test in 8th grade was good practice.
Ms. SARAH GITLEN (SAT Test Taker): You know what it's like and so it's not some scary big unknown that you're approaching. It's something that you've already done and you won't be afraid of.
Mr. JOSH RIVES (SAT Test Taker): It was helpful to be able to sit for four hours and take a test like that.
ADLER: Josh Rives qualified but decided not to go to the CTY program. Sarah Gitlen is going for her second summer.
The late professor Julian Stanley, who founded the Center for Talented Youth, began using the SAT more than 20 years ago. At first, to identify precocious mathematicians. Today, more than a third of the 7th and 8th graders who take the SAT take it to qualify for CTY. Although many who qualify don't go.
Karen Bond directs talent identification for the program.
Ms. KAREN BOND (Talent Identification Director, Center for Talented Youth): We encourage children to take the test and not tell all the tests to take them.
ADLER: And she says many students who take the tests end up saying, I didn't realize how bright I was.
Brian O'Reilly is executive director, SAT information services for the College Board which creates and administers the SAT. He says there's no risk since the scores before 9th grade don't go into your record. He says the benefit is also limited, but there's this.
Mr. BRIAN O'REILLY (Executive Director, SAT Information Services for the College Board): You get to go to the highest school to take the test. You're sitting there in that room with a bunch of high school students. It's really kind of a cool thing. And one of the few opportunities where, you know, it's cool to be smart.
Mr. ROBERT SCHAEFFER (Fair Test): For the College Board it's a niche market, an opportunity to take in another several million dollars from 120,000 kids a year each of whom pay about $30 bucks a pop for the test.
ADLER: Robert Schaeffer of Fair Test, an organization that questions the value of standardized testing, argues that the SAT only predicts how well high school seniors will do as freshman, not their creativity or depth.
Mr. SCHAEFFER: Kids who are artistically talented, particularly insightful, deep thinkers, may not score well on the SAT, but are most certainly gifted by any other standard.
ADLER: He also argues that testing younger and younger simply fuels the college arms race. Not so, says Karen Bond of the Center for Talented Youth.
Ms. BOND: I don't think that we're supporting the hurried parent. We're doing what we can do well in America to build a greater intelligencia.
ADLER: Fifteen-year-old Sarah Gitlen says she's not sure the SAT is the optimal way to judge a person's talents.
Ms. GITLEN: But I do have to say that I then went to the Hopkins program, and the people there were very creative and very smart. I don't know that I can come up with a better way.
ADLER: And Cody Jones says, for him, CTY provided a beacon of hope.
Mr. JONES: Lots of us are pretty much kind of miserable in the public school system. We have nothing to do. Next year I'm taking almost no sophomore courses. I have to take older courses with older kids and you become ostracized.
ADLER: Have you been?
Mr. JONES: Uh, yeah, yeah a lot actually.
ADLER: So the SAT in middle school may increase college pressure and put forth a one size fits all notion of creativity, but for a very bright kid bored in school, it can be a ticket to freedom. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.