In my last post, I mentioned preparation methods and specifically mentioned 7th Grade Talent Search students taking the SAT as an above-level test. I thought I would now spend a little time explaining how the SAT is an above-level test is and what it is used for. (If you are only interested in learning about the new SAT, this post may not be of interest to you. However, if you are a parent of a student taking the SAT through TIP, this post does contain valuable background information on this above-level testing experience.)
Students who perform well on regular standardized tests often do not get a precise assessment of their actual academic ability. This is because most standardized tests are designed to assess whether students understand the regular grade-level material. Often, they are designed with relatively few really difficult items that most students are expected to get wrong. This is probably fair because purposefully frustrating students with questions they are expected to get wrong would not be very popular. However, having really difficult items that most students are expected to get wrong does have a purpose. It allows us to see real differences between students who have mastered the regular grade-level material and those who have also mastered material far beyond it. When too many students get all (or almost all) questions right on a test, it is said that the test has a “low ceiling” that students will hit their cognitive heads against.
A common analogy (analogies are still useful, even if they are no longer tested on the SAT) is that using only regular grade-level tests to measure the ability of academically talented students is like using a five-foot measuring stick to assess the height of extremely tall individuals. For many students, these are perfectly fine measures. But others will be off the scale. One way around this low ceiling problem is to give some students a more difficult test. Rather than write a special test designed just for them, they can also be given an existing test that was designed for older students.
This model of above-level testing was originally developed in 1968 by Julian Stanley at Johns Hopkins University when he worked with a 12-year-old student to take the SAT. Now, nearly 50 years later, such above-level testing is taken by tens of thousands of students every year.
Above-level test scores can serve as an unbiased assessment of a student’s academic strengths, which can help parents and educators assess a student’s unique learning needs and create an informed action plan for students’ education.
In addition to being a more accurate measure of a student’s performance capability, above-level tests are also useful for identifying subject-specific talent. For example, some students may score quite high on regular grade-level tests in both math and English. On an above-level test, though, they may continue to score quite high on math, but not as well on English. That “spike” in math would otherwise have remained hidden. Such spikes suggest that this student may benefit from further acceleration or differentiation in math.
All of this shows that, even for 7th grade students, taking an above-level-test does not have to be stressful if you approach it as a learning opportunity.
By taking a college entrance test at the same time as older students, above-level testers should expect to be challenged. This might even be the first time they face test questions they don’t know the answer to. Being aware of this ahead of time can help prepare students for such an experience. Knowing what to expect may help them feel more comfortable with it. The above-level testing experience is not about needing to get every question right. Rather, it’s about seeing how many problems can be figured out. And not being able to figure out all the problems is OK.
In fact, one of the “problems” to solve is time management—that is, knowing when to move on past a tricky question to make sure that all questions are attempted. There could be easier questions later on in the section that would otherwise never been seen.
Above-level tests are diagnostic, like taking your heart rate or blood pressure. There’s no passing or failing such tests. But the information gained from such diagnostic tests can help everyone involved make a more informed decision about appropriate next steps. Getting a low score on an above-level test is absolutely not failure. What it tells us is that those students have not mastered material far above their grade level. Students who perform well on regular grade-level tests but not on above-level tests may still benefit from academic acceleration or enrichment. But students who do well on above-level tests may be ready for substantially different learning experiences than their same-age peers.
One final benefit: although above-level tests are not intended as practice tests for the college entrance process, above-level testing may ease worries about it. By the time students take the SAT or the ACT in high school, they will have already experienced the test in a low-stakes context. They will know what to expect and the test won’t feel new.
**This post is part of a series called STUNT: SAT Taking to Understand the New Test.