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There's an ongoing debate over whether taking the SAT in 7th grade is worthwhile. While teachers often aren't the primary decision-maker when it comes to students taking college entrance exams, it's always a good idea to be informed if parents or students reach out for advice. Here's a look at some of the pros and cons.
One of the most frequently touted benefits of taking the SAT in 7th grade is that some prestigious colleges (notably Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell) offer summer programs to students who perform very well. Some parents feel that attending one of these enrichment programs gives their kids an advantage when applying to selective colleges later.
Another frequently cited reason to take the test early is that it gives students practice with a long, challenging test. Proponents say that 7th graders who take the test will be less intimidated later on when the scores actually count (colleges don't accept 7th grade scores). By becoming familiar with the test's content, students can develop strategies to help them master the SAT when they're ready to apply to college.
Some say that taking the SAT in 7th grade mainly benefits test prep companies and the College Board, the preparer of the test. The College Board reports that it doesn't keep records of how many middle schoolers take the SAT, but NPR reported that in 2006, 120,000 7th and 8th graders took the test. At that time, the cost was $30 per student, so the College Board was able to tap another market worth almost $4 million.
While some test prep companies now market to younger students, others discourage early test-taking. Wendy Segal, a test prep tutor, says that she thinks 7th graders just haven't learned enough math or reading to do well. In addition, some argue that kids are tested enough—overtested, in fact—and don't need the pressure of yet another exam.
Further reading: SAT and ACT Test Prep
As noted above, 120,000 7th and 8th graders took the SAT in 2006. To put that number in perspective, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that there were nearly 7.5 million 7th and 8th grade students in 2006. Even if the number of middle schoolers taking the SAT has doubled or tripled in the last 10 years, younger students taking the SAT represent a tiny fraction of the total enrollment.
With the relatively small number of test takers at most middle schools, it seems like test prep for the SAT isn't a high priority for teachers. But placing a strong emphasis on reading, vocabulary, writing, and math is beneficial to all students, whether they take the SAT in middle school, high school, or never.
Teachers wanting to support their test-taking students without teaching to the SAT itself should still familiarize themselves with the SAT—you can purchase a sample copy online—and discuss with students what they'll need in order to do well. It's also important to remember that when it comes to studying and consuming information, middle schoolers are not high schoolers; their interests and skills are not the same. I know from years of teaching middle school that vocabulary must be taught in context, rather than with a random list of words that students can memorize. Using a technique like differentiated instruction may be beneficial for simultaneously supporting students who are and aren't taking the SAT.
Further reading: Bust Test Stress
The SAT is said to be a predictor of college success, but taking the SAT in 7th grade may simply indicate a student's level of maturity. It may be better for many students to wait and take the PSAT, the preliminary SAT test offered by many schools in 9th or 10th grade, and then wait until 11th or 12th grade to take the real thing.