One in an occasional series looking at learning in the middle and high school years

Ask teenagers Laura Hoyos and William Wacker, Lee Kussmann and Laurence Norman, what eighth grade is about, and they will detail the obvious: taking harder classes, facing a slew of standardized tests and preparing for the college countdown in high school.

But give them a minute, and out comes what it really means to be in eighth grade today at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston:

"We are finding out what kind of people we are, who we want to be," said Lee, 14.

"It's really when you start thinking about your future," said Laura, 14.

And that, the students said, means adopting a more serious attitude about schoolwork, wrestling with full-flowering hormones and negotiating peer pressure. What friends think often becomes more important; what parents want, less so.

"You are expected to be more independent, more responsible for your individual self," said Laurence, 15, adding, with a sly smile: "Not everybody is."

Once stuck squarely in the middle of junior high, eighth grade has taken on new importance as the end of the modern middle-school experience, which begins in sixth grade for most students, educators say. It is the gateway to the super-charged, high-school experience.

"They are jumping off to another world," said Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellence Education. "And that's the world of heavy content courses, where if you don't have the fundamentals down, you are in great peril."

Confident, often rambunctious and brutally honest, eighth-graders present adults with a jumble of appearances. They want to be challenged, said teacher Jennet Ballinger of Dubois Middle School in Dubois, Wyo., and they "have a desire to make a difference." One-on-one, they can be sensitive and kind; when they are "in a pack," she said, they can be mean. They can be delightful and difficult.

"This is such a great age," said James Albright, Langston Hughes's middle school program coordinator. "They are still cheerful enough that it is a pleasure to be in the classroom with them. They are not jaded. But they are ready to have serious conversations."

For many students, eighth grade is a year of contradictions.

"Emotionally, socially, intellectually, they are all over the place," said Langston Hughes Principal Deborah R. Jackson. "You have to walk into the job with built-in compassion."

Eighth-graders start the year with the comfort of knowing their school and being at the top of the middle-school hierarchy. "In sixth grade, I didn't get a lot of respect," said Benjamin Gale, 14, of Dubois Middle School. "In eighth grade, it's different."

Yet as the year progresses, eighth-graders say they begin to feel nervous about starting over again, in high school -- and they get a taste of what is to come.

Students say they find their instructors no longer are as willing to give them the answers or to let them slide when an assignment isn't done on time.

"They want you to think for yourself," Lee said.

This is the grade in which students are expected to make greater leaps in thinking from the concrete to the abstract, teachers say. In mathematics, for example, students should be moving out of figuring out how "to solve particular math problems" and into "being able to solve whole categories of problems," said Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Although some students could do this earlier, it becomes highly important for eighth-graders to adapt to teaching that is not only about "what happened" but about why it happened, and to understand how to use lessons learned to solve other problems.

One recent day at Langston Hughes, English teacher Judy Jeter made that clear to a class of 30. First she ordered them all onto their feet and led them in her version of the hula -- swaying, with moving arms, while saying "elaboration," "elaboration," "elaboration." Then she told them what she wanted in their essays -- and what she didn't:

"When you make a point," she told the students, "tell me why and where you got it. Don't just say, 'The disease moved.' Tell me why the [bubonic] plague moved" from place to place during the 1300s.

Some students groaned when she asked them to look at a rubric that explained how they would be assessed on some work.

"It's impossible," said one student. Shouted out another, "There's only 24 hours in the day."

"Anything's possible," Jeter said. "You just have to want it enough."

In Jeter's class were students with a mix of academic abilities, something common in eighth-grade classes. In fact, Al Summers, director of professional development for the Ohio-based National Middle School Association, said eighth is probably the grade with the widest spectrum in terms of social, cognitive and physical development. That presents teachers with a difficult challenge, he said.

"The good teachers can find a way to reach every student in their classroom. They are the ones who don't just throw information and expect everybody to get it."

The best reform programs in the country emphasize individualized student schedules in middle school, Wise said. He said it is easy to tell which eighth-graders will drop out of high school because they have the lowest reading scores on standardized tests given in eighth grade, one of the most heavily tested years.

Wise said educators are increasingly concerned about the reading ability of the country's eighth-graders, with new results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing that 71 percent of them read at the basic or below basic level. The test is called "the nation's report card" because it is the only standardized test given nationally.

Meanwhile, as the year progresses for eighth-graders at Langston Hughes Middle School, life takes on new meaning, students say.

More and more, teachers tell students they have to get ready for ninth grade.

"The main line is, 'You are going to need to know this next year,' " Laurence said. "You get tired of hearing 'next year,' 'next year,' 'next year.' "

William, 13, said he is already worrying about doing well in high school and what college he will attend. Lee said she is making choices with an eye to the future. Last year, she thought she would join the art club because she likes to draw, she said; this year, her interest has her thinking about a career in computer graphics or a related field.

Said Jackson, the principal: "It's about getting kids ready for ninth grade, yes, but really it is about getting them ready for the real world."

"This is such a great age," James Albright, a program coordinator at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, says of eighth-graders.