Every 8th grader in the corporation takes the PSAT right around this time each year, mostly as an indicator of high-school readiness; if a kid enrolls in a high school out of district one of the things they pull as they evaluate the kid is the PSAT score. Now, we let them know early and often that this isn’t precisely the best measuring tool for this purpose (and I don’t know who made the decision to start using this test, but I’d like to have a word with them) and that, particularly on the math portion of the test, there’s gonna be some stuff they don’t know.
Now, the thing is, we’ve only been using the PSAT for a couple of years, and last year, I didn’t administer it, since I was working from home at the time. So I haven’t actually seen what the math content on the PSAT looks like since I took the PSAT, sometime in the early fuckin’ nineties. And here’s the thing: advancing your skills in reading and writing doesn’t really work the same way as it does in math. A talented 8th grader can handle a reading or language test pitched at 9th graders, because reading is still the same thing, and there really aren’t any actually novel skills taught after, like, the middle of grade school or so. Math? Math doesn’t work like that. The PSAT is basically an Algebra 1 test, and if you’re not in Algebra 1, the notation alone is going to make the thing entirely incomprehensible. Like, my kids have never seen f(x) in any capacity, and that renders even something like f(x) = X + 6 when X is 10 somewhat incomprehensible. Some of them will figure out (or, probably more accurately, correctly guess) that they can just add 10 and 6 and get 16, but the majority of them are going to look at the function notation and just fall apart, and a whole lot of the questions used function notation some way or another. There were two math tests on the PSAT, one that was meant to be done without calculators and lasted twenty minutes, and another that allowed calculators (which weren’t going to do most of my kids a bit of good) and lasted 40. I glanced through an extra copy of the test booklet (true to expectations, attendance was miserable) and found maybe three questions on the first test I thought my kids might be able to do, and perhaps 50% of the questions on the second test were possible, or at least would be by the end of the year– second- or third-quarter material, for example.
I’m not writing this to complain about the test, mind you; it’s just not going to be as useful to evaluate where an 8th grader is mathematically than it will be to evaluate where they are as readers. I’m writing this because, as a math teacher, I spent the entire test ignoring pointed glares from at least three or four students– not because they were actually mad at me, but because they decided it was funny to blame me for the math on the test being hard and a couple of them just decided they were going to spend an hour staring at me– because it’s not like they actually thought I was responsible for the questions on the Goddamned thing. I just kept telling them not to panic and didn’t worry about it’ it’s nice, for once, to have them taking something that isn’t used to evaluate me or my school in any way. All the pressure to do well was on the people actually taking the test!