Is the PSAT valuable in middle school?
May 12, 2016 12:03 PM   Subscribe

My son will be in 8th grade this fall and is in advanced classes. Aside from the Duke TIP program are there any reasons he should take the PSAT now rather than wait until high school?

His school doesn't push the PSAT, they just administer it if he wants to take it. Is there any benefit to him if he takes it this fall since he will be too late for the TIP and Johns Hopkins summer programs? He's in advanced core classes and finishing up Algebra I for high school credit.
posted by hollygoheavy to Education (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I took the PSAT in eighth grade after taking Algebra I. I remember there was some math that was really above that level, including geometry questions, that I couldn't answer. I think the advantage was that you get a feel for how the test works, and the kind of questions that will be on the real one so you're less nervous going into it later. I wouldn't say the results are indicative of final performance, but it's great practice. I understand that people who take the PSAT tend to do better on the SAT afterwards.
posted by ananci at 12:06 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

At least when I was an eighth grader, it was entirely for bragging rights.
posted by town of cats at 12:10 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I took the PSAT in I believe 7th grade. I didn't participate in the Duke TIP program, but it did open the doors for me to other nerd camps that significantly increased my quality of life as a smart child in the south. I got to spend my summers middle through high school escaping a place I hated to surround myself with other kids who cared about learning. I would have been so sad and miserable without them. Not that a kid needs to take the PSAT in middle school to go to camp if they have motivated parents, but for me it was taking the PSAT in middle school that convinced my parents to do it.

So much of the trick to standardized testing is to learn how to take the test--having a dry run of that early on when it really doesn't matter can be pretty valuable.
posted by phunniemee at 12:13 PM on May 12, 2016 [18 favorites]

The dry run is very valuable. I did not take it in middle school and wish I had. In addition to letting me know what to expect, it would have opened more nerd camp opportunities to me. (Also it would have shocked me out of the idea that I could ace any standardized test by sheer talent alone, which didn't hit me until 10th grade)
posted by deanc at 12:15 PM on May 12, 2016

How often does he take multi-hour fill-in-the-bubble tests? It's a skill, and any amount of practice will help him with the SAT/ACT/etc.

Also, it's the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program, and there's worse ways to go after a few bucks for college.
posted by Etrigan at 12:15 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I was in 8th grade, I took the PSAT and received some sort of recognition and very small honorarium (National Merit Scholarship, maybe?) at a ceremony at UVA for my score. I would be surprised if the honorarium paid for the gas to drive to Charlottesville. It was good having practice with the test, and it was good to have a chance to visit a real research university and see what it was actually about, as opposed to having it filtered through the lens of pop culture.

Honestly, at the time I didn't care so much, but when word got around about my score teachers, counselors, community gatekeepers, etc. began treating me differently and encouraging my academic and social progress. I realize now just how valuable that was, and how much work was being done behind the scenes for me.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:16 PM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

(National Merit Scholarships are for high school seniors.)

It's funny that they push the PSAT now. When I was in middle school, it was the SAT itself. It was useful for CTY (Johns Hopkins) admissions, and I got to go to Chicago for some ceremony (about which I remember nothing but the drive), but if there's not a particular program he has in mind, I'm not sure there's a point. It can be useful leverage if the kid's not receiving sufficient academic support. If he's already getting his academic needs met, though, it's not necessarily helpful to teach him to value himself according to a single test score. He'll get enough of that nonsense soon enough.
posted by praemunire at 12:25 PM on May 12, 2016

Oh, was it the SAT? praemunire is right. I took the SAT in 7th grade. Didn't take the PSAT until 10th (and then again in the 11th).
posted by phunniemee at 12:27 PM on May 12, 2016

so when I was in seventh grade took the ACT basically only for TIP. I didn't prepare for it in the slightest but I think there were three results

- I did end up doing a summer program at a university (Truman State) which was nice from a socialization point of view but I guess off the table for your son at this point.
- I saw what the standardized tests I was expected to be able to do by the end of HS looked like, so I wasn't thrown by the weirdness of the science section on the ACT a few years later.
- I got a sufficiently good score that I think it got my parents (maybe some of my teachers also) to try to push me a bit harder because I had, out of boredom checked out of doing some of my schoolwork. Maybe I didn't need that to be tied to my standardized test scores but hopefully didn't have a lot of lasting effects

So basically similar to others' answers.
posted by dismas at 12:30 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

(National Merit Scholarships are for high school seniors.)

but the PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) because it is the basis for distributing NMS to HS students. Those students need to have taken the test by 10th grade usually to qualify. It may seem excessive but if you think your child has a shot (keeping in mind that its only $2500 and college costs about eleventy billion dollars) it may be worth taking it before it counts as practice, as mentioned above.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:30 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I took the SAT every year from like 7th grade due to TIP (it used SAT back then as others have mentioned).

While that was my primary reason (and I went to TIP 3 years and recommend it), I think it also had a positive effect on my eventual "real" SAT round for college admissions. I had not only been practicing the test, but the test conditions, for so long it was all very routine.

But its probably not necessary to start so early for that effect. However, I _enjoyed_ taking the SAT every year. A combination of loving standardized tests generally and that I did well at them. So thats another factor, how he feels about these kind of tests in general.
posted by thefoxgod at 12:59 PM on May 12, 2016

If your son has the opportunity and exposure to take it, I would say just take it to give a try-out, and if there are any early problems, then test preparation can help him get a higher score come SAT time.

The PSAT is really useful to take, due to the advantage of having early exposure and familiarity. I consider the SATs like any other part of a standardized curriculum - you memorize familiarity, strategies, and tactics that they are looking for, so you can ace the test. Having as much early exposure as possible helps with the preparation up to it, so it isn't as arduous. I took it as an 7th/8th grader, and it made me realize how I needed to focus on specific areas in the long-term. My score improved by 400 points by the time I took the actual SAT two-three years later, due to that.

I feel for my friends who came from school districts that didn't even tell them to prepare for the SAT, and if it wasn't for their exterior support networks and friends from wealthier school districts that gave them tons of resources to prep for the SAT, then they would have never gotten through it, it seemed too foreign. So again, take the opportunity if your son is willing to. Plus, high school is exhausting on top of everything else - anything to help ease the pain of all that college admission prep really helps.
posted by yueliang at 1:00 PM on May 12, 2016

I didn't take the PSAT until high school, but I did get invited to take the ACT in 7th grade and later took the SAT earlier than usual as part of my application to an elite high school that required it.

I am so so so so so so so so (infinitely so!) glad I opted to take these tests early.

1. For one thing, as you allude to, they open a lot of doors for extracurricular enrichment type stuff, as well as gifted programs and "elite" educational opportunities. As a middle schooler who was severely bullied and had trouble finding my tribe early on, I am positive that I would be dead right now if I had not taken the ACT in seventh grade, gone to a summer program for gifted students which I became eligible for via the Duke talent search, discovered that other nerdy kids exist, and eventually decided to attend a residential magnet high school affiliated with that very summer program. These opportunities saved my life, literally. And even if your son is happy and well-adjusted where he is, it's still a cool thing to get the chance to do.

2. You get practice taking this type of test, at very low stakes. Nobody actually cares how well you do on these tests as an 8th grader. The point isn't to ace it, the point is to see how it goes. Which means that down the line, when these exams really do have stakes, you're a lot more comfortable with the process. It was also nice to take the ACT unconnected to test prep, cramming, etc. and helped me be less stressed when it counted.

3. That practice might enhance future scores. The only one of the college-prep standardized tests I didn't take beforehand was the PSAT, and I did markedly worse on the PSAT than the others. IIRC the PSAT doesn't have as big an impact on college admissions than the others, but still, I think that as many of them as you can take can only help your future chances.

4. You get used to the ethos of "if at first you don't succeed..." as an approach for learning new skills or dealing with challenges. I got a 23 on the ACT when I took it in 7th grade. Which is actually amazing for a middle schooler, but (I think? Am I a snob?) disappointing overall. It was heartening to see my score immediately jump the first time I took it "for real", which led me to take it a third time during the college admissions process. A lot of people treat the college admission exams as make-or-break, and it doesn't even occur to them to take a mulligan if they're not happy with their score. This is also a good lesson for life, because a lot of the time kids have the instinct to quit right away if something doesn't come easily. It was good to have the experience of doing a mediocre/poor job at something really hard (especially as a gifted kid who is used to being 99th percentile at everything), discovering that it won't kill you, and trying again down the road.

All in all, seriously, I think it would be rash for any parent to pass up an opportunity for something like this on their child's behalf.
posted by Sara C. at 1:03 PM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

received some sort of recognition and very small honorarium (National Merit Scholarship, maybe?) at a ceremony at UVA for my score

I did the same (well, the ceremony was at a different university, but you get the idea), and my honorarium was a collection of short stories I still have!

From my middle school perspective, take a boring test, get a sweet book, sounded like a great deal!
posted by Sara C. at 1:10 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Those students need to have taken the test by 10th grade usually to qualify.

No, they ordinarily take the test as juniors.

Back when I was in (public) school, we had relatively little exposure to high-stakes testing--I think there was some standardized exam we took 2-3 times (?) in total. Now, I feel that the public-school kids get tested so much that adding yet another test is of minimal prep value. If there's a program that he's interested in that uses it for admissions, by all means, but it sounds like you're basically happy with his education otherwise, and another test in itself? Meh.
posted by praemunire at 1:46 PM on May 12, 2016

Oh! In addition to taking the PSAT, I also took the SAT in ninth grade, like as a practice test but it was the real one, not the easier version the PSAT is. It wasn't for an official score, but that one does give you an idea of areas you need to focus your studies on to do well on the official test.
posted by ananci at 1:48 PM on May 12, 2016

I took the SAT for TIP in seventh grade, aside from getting to go to some kind of recognition thing at Duke and then getting brochures of cool looking summer programs my parents couldn't afford, I think the experience of prepping on my own for a big test (with things like a Princeton Review CD-ROM that is, shockingly, seared into my brain as an adult) was helpful in developing those skills later when I needed them for the SATs, APs, and the bar exam. I'd probably have learned to do that anyway, but that was my first exposure to it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:50 PM on May 12, 2016

I also took the SAT in 7th grade. I did well enough to get a free college class. Don't remember the name, though - might've been TIP, but whatever.

In high school, I was a National Merit Finalist, and the school I chose gave me a full tuition scholarship for that. That was quite nice.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 3:42 PM on May 12, 2016

I was introduced to MetaFilter by one of my dearest friends who I met through nerd camp which I attended in part because of stellar test scores starting with the ACT in 7th grade.

How could you deny your child that sort of opportunity???
posted by yeahlikethat at 6:22 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I took the SAT in 7th grade too, through Midwest Talent Search (I forgot it was run by Northwestern University). It opened up many nerd camp opportunities for me (the one I attended was at Manchester College in Indiana - I had a great time!), but the real value was being able to have that dry run at it, when there wasn't much on the line. When I took the SAT in high school, I knew exactly what to expect and was better able to prepare.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:04 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I took the SAT in 7th grade, got to go to duke for a recognition ceremony, and got to go to a summer camp for nerdy girls at St Mary's College in South Bend. It was really the first time in my life I encountered my tribe. I didn't realize there were other nerdy girls out there, and it changed my whole outlook to discover there were others out there. It definitely helped me make it through the end of middle school.
posted by antimony at 8:05 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't recall whether it was the PSAT or SAT that I took in 8th grade, but either way my score earned me a scholarship from Johns Hopkins's CTY program to attend one freshman-level college class at George Washington University during the Fall semester of 9th grade. I'm not sure I even knew that was a possibility when I took the test; I think my mom just encouraged me to do it for the practice. I took Intro Psych and it was a pretty awesome experience. I don't know if they still offer that program, but there may be opportunities other than just Duke TIP or CTY summer programs that a good score would open up.
posted by biogeo at 9:12 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just don't see a material downside to taking it other than whatever the cost might be.
posted by AugustWest at 9:17 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also took the SAT in 7th grade. I vaguely remember going somewhere to collect some kind of certificate? My parents also signed me up for a Johns Hopkins CTY class. Looking back, my cynical view is that the Talent Search programs are primarily lead generators for these sorts of classes, which are of variable quality and utility. Of course YMMV, and taking the test for free is a no-brainer.
posted by Standard Orange at 11:29 PM on May 12, 2016

I'm a high school teacher and my advice is to skip the PSAT and just have him take the SAT now. The more practice he gets on it, the better.

One factor I haven't seen considered is: does your kid LIKE to take these tests or will it make him anxious?

If he likes taking them, then sure, it's good practice for the SAT.

If he gets anxious about these exams, then still yes so he can see they're not really a big deal and he won't be really anxious when he takes the SAT again. Unless he gets REALLY anxious in which case I'd drop it for now.

And if he does well, that will get his name on all sorts of cool college-program mailing lists.

I would just not frame it as something that's critical to his future or otherwise put any pressure on him to do well. Like, I wouldn't even have him study. What's most valuable is when he gets his answers, he can see what he got wrong. Usually you can detect a pattern about the type of question that trips him up and he can better narrow down his focus area for further preparation down the line.

Skip the PSAT, have him take the SAT instead.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:23 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

IIRC, the PSAT qualifies you for National Merit Scholarships, so whether you take it now or not, make sure to keep an eye out for that kind of qualification later. FWIW, I took the SAT in 7th? grade via John Hopkins' CTY program and only took the PSAT later for NMS. (I see Exceptional_Hubris says this as well, so while I haven't done this since the late 90s, I'm adding another data point anyway)

At any rate, taking the SAT early was helpful in easing test anxiety later because a) I knew what was coming and b) I had a fall back score (even if it was terrible). And yeah, it's fun to send your scores to a couple schools for free (mom and dad's almae maters, for example) and get program brochures. (And yeah, I think Standard Orange is right in that a lot of this is to get kids to apply to CTY, but I did a couple of those summer programs and they were great for me. They helped me academically [I was able to skip trig thanks to doing that over the summer] and socially [nerrrrrrds! I met so many nerrrrrrds! It was beautiful.])
posted by maryr at 10:00 AM on May 13, 2016

I think a lot of the value for me was validation. It helped build the case for me skipping eighth grade, it added to my awesome track record so a sexist math teacher in high school didn't affect my confidence, and I got a couple books from TIP (and the talk at the ceremony was really good and I think I still have the brochure with the text ~20 years later). I also got a national merit scholarship later.

Unless your kid is opposed or the cost is a problem, why not? It'll at least get him started on thinking about the path to college and what his strengths are.
posted by momus_window at 12:32 PM on May 13, 2016

How many other kids take it? In 7th grade I was given the option to take it but didn't because I thought it was dumb. Everyone else in my honors math class took it, and I felt like an idiot because I felt like they thought I wasn't asked to take it. So there's that.
posted by radioamy at 6:23 PM on May 14, 2016

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