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Maker of SAT Aims New Test at 8th Graders

By Scott J. Cech — October 22, 2008 4 min read
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Officials at the New York City-based College Board last week rolled out their newest product: ReadiStep.

No, it’s not a new piece of exercise equipment or a whipped dessert topping—it’s a test for 8th graders that some critics are calling a pre-PSAT, referring to the Preliminary SAT assessment taken by 9th and 10th graders and owned by the College Board.

The test, which will be given for the first time next fall, to some extent resembles a slightly scaled-down PSAT. It will be given in students’ schools, and divided into three 40-minute, multiple-choice sections: critical reading, writing skills, and mathematics.

College Board officials said that the test will be paid for by schools at a cost of less than $10 per student, and that scores will be released to school districts, students, and parents within four weeks of its administration.

“ReadiStep was created at the request of schools and districts,” Lee Jones, the College Board’s senior vice president of college-readiness products, told reporters on a teleconference. “They wanted a measure of students’ progress toward college earlier than 10th grade.”

Mr. Jones declined to specify which or how many schools or districts had asked for the exam, which he said was “specifically built from a blueprint of ... college-readiness standards.”

The College Board says those standards, trademarked as “English Language Arts and Mathematics College Board Standards for College Success,” are designed to be national models of rigorous academic content. The standards are meant to align curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development with college-readiness and Advanced Placement standards, according to a statement from the nonprofit College Board, which also owns the AP assessments.

Move Attracts Criticism

Critics were dismissive of the College Board’s suggestion that ReadiStep fills a void.

“They’re selling the equivalent of Reddi Wip,” said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based testing-watchdog group, referring to the whipped dessert topping. “There’s no need for another test, other than to boost the College Board’s revenues and market share.”

Mr. Schaeffer calculated that by the time students reach 8th grade, they will have taken at least 14 standardized tests mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, in addition to others required by states and school districts.

In answer to a question about whether the College Board believes there is hypothetically a point at which students are tested too much, Mr. Jones said, “They need to have ongoing feedback.”

Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., which owns the ACT test, has offered Explore, an assessment for 8th and 9th graders, since 1991. A record 980,000 students last year took Explore, which costs schools $7.50 per student, said act spokesman Ed Colby.

W. James Popham, a professor emeritus and assessment expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he hadn’t yet seen ReadiStep, which has not been made available to reporters. But he brushed off the College Board’s assertion that ReadiStep will provide educators with an accurate diagnosis of a student’s academic skills and lack thereof.

“I would be willing to bet future generations of unborn children that it wouldn’t be any different from their other tests,” he said.

K-12 educators’ reactions to the new test were mixed.

Anthony Cody, an instructional coach in the 39,000-student Oakland, Calif., school district, said he didn’t believe that a multiple-choice test costing less than $10 per student could be a high-quality assessment.

“There is no such thing as too much information on student achievement, but there is a problem of quality,” said Mr. Cody, an instructional coach with certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who taught middle school science for 18 years. “We need much more emphasis on classroom-based assessments, rather than drive-by, snapshot, multiple-choice tests.”

Nancy Poulos, an assistant principal at the public World Journalism Preparatory School—a 440-student school serving grades 6-11 in the Queens section of New York City—said that as word got out that her school was among those piloting the test, “there was a big demand from the parent community.”

“This was an attention grabber—I even got calls from parents all over Queens wondering if there was some way they could get their kids in to take it,” she said.

Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington-based education policy think tank, said, “I don’t think anyone wants more tests.” But she added that ReadiStep might well help to alert students earlier that they need to think about taking college-prep courses.

“I think what it can do is signal to the school community earlier that college is a priority,” Ms. Silva said. Nonetheless, she said, “I don’t think that that’s helping prepare [students] for what they need to know for college.”

Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington that advocates for poor and minority students, said that while extending early awareness about college is key to increasing the number of college graduates, “that is not about adding new tests, but making sure that those tests line up with that goal.”

Though Mr. Jones of the College Board disagreed with critics’ characterization of ReadiStep as a “pre-pre-SAT,” Ms. Poulos said that from what she saw of the exam when it was administered at her school this month, it was “very similar to the PSAT” and “a very rigorous exam.” And that judgment was apparently confirmed by the students who took the two-hour test.

“They were overwhelmed,” Ms. Poulos said. “They were wiped.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Maker of SAT Aims New Test at 8th Graders

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