With a Pre-PSAT, the Joys of Testing Start Even Earlier

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Parents, get ready to start stressing out even earlier about whether your kid will get into a good college. The College Board, the nonprofit that owns the PSAT and SAT, on Oct. 22 unveiled a new exam designed to assess eighth graders' readiness for high school and college courses. The two-hour test, known as ReadiStep, will launch next fall, using a multiple-choice format divided into sections that evaluate students' reading, writing and math skills.

But unlike the PSAT or SAT, ReadiStep scores won't end up at any college-admissions or financial-aid office — they'll be sent only to current schools and families to be used as a diagnostic tool to help determine what college-prep skills youngsters should bone up on. Parents and students should not anticipate it becoming "the pre-pre-pre-PSAT," says Lee Jones, College Board's senior vice president of college-readiness products. And it will be schools and districts themselves that decide whether to administer ReadiStep, which will be offered during two-week windows in the spring and the fall. The College Board expects the districts to pick up the tab, estimated to be less than $10 per student. Results arrive four weeks after the test.

Jones says the College Board decided to offer the new test after surveying more than 1,000 school administrators and finding that more than half indicated they were interested in this type of assessment. "There was significant demand for a gut check on students' reading, writing and math skills," he says. As opposed to other standardized tests, Jones explains, ReadiPrep examines college readiness based on criteria similar to those evaluated by the SAT. "And it needed to come earlier — we heard eighth grade is a critical year," he adds.

That gut check could have long-term benefits. "Going to ninth grade unprepared for the work is a pathway for failure and dropping out for many young people," says Suzanne Morse, president of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, a research group on community-building, based in Jacksonville, Fla. "This test can help school systems, communities, and students and parents intervene before it is too late."

But critics are already questioning the College Board's motives. ReadiStep arrives at a time when more and more students are choosing to take the ACT, the SAT's rival. At the same time, every year fewer and fewer colleges and universities are requiring the SAT or ACT — more than 775 schools have now made scores optional for admission consideration. ReadiStep is "a cynical marketing ploy," says Jesse Mermell, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), one of the College Board's most vocal opponents. "[It] is designed to lock eighth graders into the SAT series of exams before they can consider the increasingly popular alternatives."

Moreover, federal No Child Left Behind mandates already require that students from grades three through eight be tested every year. "We don't need another standardized test for testing's sake," says Irvin Scott, high school academic superintendent for Boston Public Schools.

Even so, Scott says he is intrigued by ReadiStep and will consider using it, adding, "If it is a formative assessment that can tell us exactly how to prepare kids better for college, then it could be a good addition."

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