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23 October 2008

Do We Really Need an Eighth-Grade SAT? Ben Paris

A guest essay by a friend. Ben wrote this back in August, but here's an article about this test in today's NYT. Feel free to comment or e-mail him directly. I'll send this link to him so he can respond; we'll figure it out.

This op-ed was not published anywhere, unfortunately.

Do We Really Need an Eighth-Grade SAT?

Parents and teachers are appropriately mystified by the news that the College Board, the organization that brings you the SAT and the PSAT, is planning on introducing a new national exam for eighth-graders. But don't we have enough tests? What possible value could there be in taking one more? The answer, if you're a student, a teacher, or a parent, is "none." If you're the College Board, however, this new exam is dripping with marketing potential. You have to admire their creativity, but that's still no reason to stress out our children with yet another test.

The College Board claims that the new test would measure help students figure out if they should sign up for advanced courses. That sounds reasonable at first, but the logic behind it quickly falls apart. Even if the eighth grade were the best time to make this decision, what information would we get out of this new test that we couldn't gather from a student's entire academic record? How about the piles of tests they already take? The notion that the new test will be good practice for the SAT makes even less sense. Anyone can take a practice SAT for free. Given the extraordinary amount of time and resources that already go into assessment, it is unrealistic to believe that a watered-down SAT would provide enough additional information to justify its existence.

Of course, there are more cynical (and persuasive) explanations for the College Board's new test. The first cynical explanation is that the new test is designed to generate testing fees for the College Board's coffers. Maybe, but the real financial value of this new test has nothing to do with testing fees. While a new test has little value for most students and teachers, it has tremendous potential to help the College Board develop its brand.

Like businesses in the for-profit world, the College Board has competitors, and it competes for market share. No one is forced to take a College Board test, but students in states where the SAT dominates are often unaware that another test, the ACT, is a viable alternative. In "SAT states," students, parents and teachers believe that the ACT is "for Midwest colleges" or "for students in the Midwest." Neither of these statements is true. Anyone can take the ACT, and it is accepted virtually everywhere. As a matter of practice, the ACT is most popular in the Midwest, but this is a result of culture and marketing as opposed to anything resembling a rule.

From the College Board's perspective, lack of awareness of the ACT and the belief that you need to take the SAT are both good things. No one has to take the PSAT either, but millions do, and when they do they build a brand relationship with the College Board. An eighth-grade SAT would be a logical next step in this process. It's never too early to build brand loyalty. Just as for-profit businesses build brand relationships with children who will one day use their products, this new test would give eighth-graders early exposure to the College Board brand. When kids grow up playing with toy tractors from John Deere or Caterpillar brand bulldozers, they build a relationship with those companies. An eighth-grade SAT could work the same way, except that little kids like playing with toy tractors and bulldozers.

The new test could also be a way to defuse a threat. Every year close to one million middle school students take the Explore test offered by ACT. An eighth-grade SAT could keep many more of these students in the College Board family. There's plenty of cross-marketing potential, too. If students do well on an eighth-grade SAT, more of them may be steered towards advanced placement (AP) courses. Who makes the AP exams that one takes at the end of AP courses? The College Board, naturally. A new test could also help the College Board influence high school curricula by steering students to different courses. And why stop there? The new test could even influence the curriculum in lower grades. You might hear that your fifth-grade curriculum is designed to prepare students for the eighth-grade SAT, which is a precursor to the PSAT, the SAT, and so on.

Trying to positively influence high school curricula is a laudable goal, but building the College Board's brand awareness is no reason to make millions of students take an unnecessary test.

ben.paris@gmail.com

Benjamin Paris is a member of the national advisory board of the California Learning Strategies Center, a think tank for parents of gifted students.

1 comment:

  1. I hated the SAT's and I too find no value in subjecting middle school students to that kind of torture. The thing is, they don't prove that much about what you know, since I couldn't remember being taught how to figure out half of the questions. It seems like an 8th grade SAT is just a way to get more people to take the tests, since it's apparent that all of the students who would take a practice SAT in middle school would be the people to take the real SAT in high school.

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