College Board Unveils Test for 8th Graders

Organization says exam will help students prepare for higher ed. Others question whether American schools need more multiple choice assessments.
October 23, 2008

You've heard of the SAT and the PSAT. Now the College Board is planning a new test for 8th graders, similar in many ways to the other tests.

At a briefing to unveil the program Wednesday, College Board officials said that the exam -- ReadiStep -- would help students, their families and their schools plan high school programs that would increase preparedness for college. The idea is that the test will be for diagnostic purposes, not for evaluating whether students get into certain programs or win scholarships. The test will be "a launchpad" that "can help teachers change the course of students' instruction," said Lee Jones, the College Board's senior vice president for college readiness.

Testing critics, however, said that the the test was unnecessary and appeared to be motivated by the growing competition faced by the College Board from the ACT.

ReadiStep will be a two-hour exam with three sections: critical reading, writing and mathematics (the same sections as are on the SAT). Unlike the SAT, on which a portion of the writing score is based on a student essay, all of the questions on ReadiStep will be multiple choice. The College Board declined to release sample questions. The test will be proctored by teachers, in schools, and will start next fall as schools sign up. The College Board said that it wanted to keep the test inexpensive and that the fees (to be less than $10 per test) would be paid by schools, not students.

Jones said that this test's focus would be on helping to identify strengths and weaknesses so students could use high school to effectively prepare for college. When reporters questioned Jones and others at the briefing about whether American schools really need another test, board officials said that there was no such test available now and that school leaders had been asking the College Board to create this test.

Asked for the names of school leaders who had made such requests, the College Board declined to release any but provided names of two educators instead. Both praised the idea of the report in interviews, but both also have College Board ties -- with one serving as a trustee and another on the panel that provided advice on the mathematics portion of the new test.

James Choike, a mathematics professor at Oklahoma State University, who was on the test development committee, said that there are "valid concerns" that students get too much testing these days. But he said he saw value in the new test. Giving students "at an early stage a taste of an SAT-like examination," he said, could "raise collegiate aspiration levels."

While College Board officials said repeatedly that ReadiStep was needed because there is no test for those starting high school that is oriented around college preparation, others say that there is just such a test already: the ACT Explore program, which describes itself in much the same way as the College Board is describing its new test.

A spokesman for the ACT said that the organization hadn't studied the new College Board test and so couldn't comment on it. But the spokesman said that Explore has been around for 17 years, and has become quite popular. Last year, 980,000 students in 8th or 9th grade took the exam. It is based on a format similar to that of the ACT, with sections on English, math, reading and science.

Jesse Mermell, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is a major critic of the College Board, called ReadiStep "a cynical marketing ploy designed to enhance test-maker revenues, not improve access to higher education.” Mermell said that the College Board designed the new test "to lock 8th graders into the SAT series of exams before they can consider the increasingly popular alternatives of the ACT or test-optional admissions.”


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