District school superintendent Vincent E. Reed has announced that the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), which many of the nation's high school juniors take each year on a voluntary basis, will become mandatory for all of the city's 10th-graders.
The financially troubled school system will spend an estimated $28,500 to cover the costs of testing 7,600 sophomores on Oct. 21 and 25. The money, according to J. Weldon Greene, program development director for the public schools, will come from funds already budgeted for testing purposes.
Reed said he decided to require the exam because he believes District high school students should be introduced early to competitive standardized testing and to the strategies which will help them pass those tests.
Test scores will be used to pinpoint students' weak spots and also to identify potential college students who may not have considered higher education, Reed said.
The PSAT tests a student's verbal and mathematical skills.
"Most of our youngsters never take this test," Reed said. "And in some cases, we may have a pleasant surprise. I think that we will identify some of our brightest kids along with those who need improvement."
Reed said he is not concerned that low test scores may discourage students who are unhappy about poor reading ability and low scores on other tests.
"There'll be many things a youngster can't do in life," Reed said. "But that is no reason to avoid having him take these tests. We've used that line of thinking to coddle an entire generation into illiteracy."
Instead of lowering student morale, Reed said, administering the test could improve it by showing students that they can identify their weakness and work to eliminate them.
The test is normally given to high school juniors to prepare them for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is administered in the senior year and is a key factor in college admission.
The PSAT is a scaled-down version of this test and is used to measure comprehensive verbal and mathematical skills. It is scored on a scale of 20 to 80. The test also serves as a qualifying exam for the National Merit and National Achievement Scholarship programs.
Normally, only 11th graders have taken the PSATs. Last year, 1,206 students in the 11th grade took the exam. For this year, 2,579 are registered for the test.
The Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., which administers, scores and distributes the tests, says the District may be the first school system in the country to require a group of students to take the PSAT.
Linda Heacock, ETS spokeswoman, said the test is a good indicator of how a student is likely to perform on the SAT, and provides practical experience in test-taking. But she said she doubted that there is any intrinsic value in the PSAT for a student who is not college-bound.
"It is a fairly difficult exam," Heacock said, "and a student who has not been in a college-prep situation could very easily become discouraged after taking it."
Neighboring suburban schools do not require their students to take the test.
"Why is he going to do it? Is he going to pay?" asked Boyd Webb of the Arlington schools when told of Reed's decision.
Arlington schools do not require the test and have no plans to do so, he said. Unless a student plans to go to college, Webb said, he can see no reason to take the PSAT. He estimated that about 60 percent of the students in Arlington's school voluntarily take the PSAT each year.
Montgomery County does not require its students to take the test, either, although roughly 75 percent do. The county does require comprehensive exams in major subject areas, but a school spokesman said that a student who is not college-bound and is forced to take the PSAT "will be questioned in subject matter he hasn't taken, and will probably have a very hard time."
In Prince George's County, guidance superintendent Dorothy Harvey said students are encouraged, but not required to take the test, adding, "I would hope no student, counselor, or parent would put all their hopes into one test -- it's extremely difficult, and should not be use as the it . . . if they don't take it, it doesn't mean they can't go to college. There's a tendency to place too much emphasis on test scores alone."
Reed, however, is determined to proceed with the test, which he views as a valuable tool for students, counselors, parents and administrators. Many in the school system agree with him.
School board president R. Calvin Lockridge said that tests such as the PSAT provide "one way to measure the students' ability to cope in the outside world. We [the board] have no problems with spending the money for the exams. We buy supplies, books, and these tests are just another part of the educational process. I think this is a decision we can support."
J. Weldon Greene of the D.C. schools said that even with the system's budget cuts, there is no better use for the money which will be spent on the tests.
"We must upgrade our testing program at the secondary level," Greene said. "We'll be using the test results to provide us with more detailed information about the kids. It will serve as a research base to find out where the students are. This way, we can work with those students who want to take the test in the 11th grade, and help those kids who have weak spots all at the same time.
"We want to encourage students to take the test in their junior year, and we want to get them thinking about the SAT and college as well," Greene added. "Students are finding out that they must go on and attempt to get a degree in order to prepare themselves for the tight job market. Maybe there hasn't been enough emphasis on it (the PSAT) in the past, but now that we're going to require it in the 10th grade, all of the students will be more conscious of it."
"It will give students a very necessary early experience with competitive exams," Nathaniel Hill, director of counseling and guidance in the District's schools, said. "They need to start thinking about this kind of thing as early as possible. Even the ones who don't go to college are going to work somewhere and most jobs require competitive exams these days. Our city is a great example of this . . . look at the tests you have to take to get a position in the federal government. . . .
"It can't possibly do any damage. We are just getting them ready to compete."
Vincent Reed says he is not concerned about whether the students taking the test go on to college or even approve of the new requirement.
"Whatever the reaction, we're going to go with it," he said.