Already under pressure from parents, peers and a society that often sees test scores as measures of success, increasing numbers of students as young as age 12 are taking the difficult, three-hour college entrance examination before entering high school.
Last year, 105,700 seventh- and eighth-graders took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a multiple-choice examination intended for high school juniors and seniors.
The number of young test-takers has been growing for the last 20 years; that age group now makes up 6 percent of the 1.7 million students who take the exam each year.
In a test-conscious society where scores on standardized tests already influence a wide range of endeavors, the growing number of youngsters taking the SAT evokes enthusiasm among some parents and educators and concern among others.
Thousands of youngsters will take the test this Saturday, nearly all of them taking it either to enter special summer programs for the academically gifted or to prepare early for the college application process.
Some believe that tackling such challenges at an early age stimulates learning and gives the young students a leg up on their classmates when they take the test again in high school.
"When they take the test later and it counts, they will already have been through it," said Anne Brightwell McCord of Atlanta, who is sending her 12-year-old son, Hank, a sixth-grader at Oak Grove Elementary School, to a center that is helping him prepare to take the SAT next year.
But others believe too much importance is already put on standardized testing.
They say giving the SAT to children who have not yet been taught the algebra and geometry that are covered in the test is absurd.
And for some, imposing the anxiety and stress of the SAT steals yet another thread of childhood from youngsters who are growing up too fast.
"The whole thing is hideous," said Joan Flynn of Rockaway, N.Y., whose 12-year-old son, Huck, a seventh-grader at Brooklyn Friends School, was invited to take the SAT as an entrance exam for a summer education program.
Ms. Flynn said no. "There's more to life than scores on a test," she said.
Twenty years ago, only a few thousand precocious young students took the test. But with the development and spread of special summer programs for exceptional students run by colleges, the number of early test takers has steadily increased because the programs require high SAT scores for admission.
(The Johns Hopkins University operates the oldest of the more than 35 talent-search programs in the nation. Since 1972 the program, now called the Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth, has identified mathematically gifted youngsters, typically 10 to 13 years old, and put them in three-week summer workshops.)