Idaho high school sophomores quietly began taking the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test this week as part of a statewide effort to get more kids thinking about college after high school.
The exam, once taken as a precursor to the SAT among students motivated to attend college, could turn out to be a powerful tool in helping school districts graduate more college- and career-ready students, district officials say.
Its increased use - an estimated 20,000 10th-graders could take the exam this year - will provide detailed information on students' strengths and weaknesses that has not typically been available to schools.
"We'll use the data to improve instruction," said Don Coberly, Boise School District superintendent.
Boise could see results as early as spring, when some of the juniors who also took the test line up for the SAT.
Results from the PSAT, which cost the state an estimated $200,000 to administer, are due back in December to districts that signed up to take the test.
Results from Idaho juniors who take the SAT - one of the ways to meet the graduation requirement for taking a college entrance exam - show the state has work to do in getting students college- and career-ready.
In April, 17,306 juniors took the exam, but only a quarter of them scored high enough to be considered college-ready. The state views that as a score of 500 or more in each of three categories: critical reading, math and writing. The total points possible in each category is 800.
In Treasure Valley districts, typically fewer than half of the students were college-ready based on scores from each of three SAT exams covering critical reading, math and writing. In some cases, less than 20 percent of students met that benchmark.
But in that low performance, Coberly and leaders from other districts find some cause for optimism: Many students who fall short of the 500 score in each exam don't miss it by much.
About a third of Boise School District juniors scored between 400 and 490 on each of the SAT categories in 2012-13.
That's about 10 wrong answers in each category, out of roughly 60 questions, Coberly said. Getting those students to 500 will take work, he said, but it is not out of reach.
The PSAT will give districts the kind of pinpoint information on student performance they have not had since the state used the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in the late 1990s. One of the lingering complaints about the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, the state's high-stakes exam for the past decade, was that it did not give educators a question-by-question analysis of right and wrong answers.
Districts will know how each student scored on each question in the PSAT.
For example, Boise District sophomores last year scored below their peers nationally in two questions about geometry and measurement and algebra, according to results from the 2012-13 PSAT. Boise district gave the exam a year before Idaho began a statewide push for sophomores to take the test.
Caldwell School District will take the same tack as Boise when it gets its PSAT results in three months, said Jodie Mills, director of curriculum and instruction.
Caldwell had among the Treasure Valley's lowest scores for college-ready students on the SAT given to juniors in April.
"I am excited for it," Mills said. "It's one more valid assessment of kids."
Educators will be able to determine if students had difficulty synthesizing information in the question or if they lacked the skills to get the answer, she said.
"It's going to be quite different for Caldwell schools," Mills said.
Once Boise gets its PSAT results for 2013-14, district officials will send them to schools where educators can study the results and decide how to adjust their teaching. Curriculum changes could come not only in 10th or 11th grade, where students are taking the exams, but in junior highs or even elementary schools to make certain students are better prepared in earlier grades, Coberly said.
The districts' end goal, however, is not just to get a certain score on the test, Coberly said.
It is to produce students who are prepared for college.
The SAT isn't a predictor of college success, but it is one measure of how well students can be prepared, he said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts