Preteen has SAT's number

September 04, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Jason Choe's middle school career came to an abrupt halt last week - and he can blame the test he took in June.

The 12-year-old Millersville resident scored an 800 on the math section of the SAT, making him one of 13 seventh-graders nationwide to reach the maximum score on that part of the college entrance exam last school year.

As a result, the quiet boy who enjoys reading, video games and playing the piano took the promotion test this week to enter Severna Park High School as a freshman. "I'm just ready for it," said Jason, who was to have spent the year as an eighth-grader at Severna Park Middle School.

Nationally, fewer than 1 percent of the 1.4 million students of all ages who took the SAT reached the maximum score on its math portion, and nearly all of them were older students. Christina Zou of Potomac was one of 48 eighth-graders nationally to hit that mark last school year, for example.

Jason and Christina were among more than 40,000 preteens - more than 2,500 of them in Maryland - who took the SAT through the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. Along with his maximum math score, Jason got a 520 on the verbal portion of the test.

The center, now in its 25th year, uses tests like the SAT to further investigate the skills of young people who score in the upper echelons of standardized tests regularly administered in elementary school, such as the TerraNova.

"At the 97th percentile or higher, those standardized tests don't tell you very much anymore," said the center's director of communication, Charles Beckman.

The center offers awards and courses for seventh-graders who score above 550 and for eighth- graders who score above 600 on either part of the test.

Christina, a ninth-grader in the science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School, first took the SAT in seventh grade, earning a combined score of 1350.

"I knew I was going to take it eventually," she said. "I wanted to see where I would rank so I could improve."

When Christina took the test in the eighth grade, she earned not only the top score on the math test but a 750 on the verbal section.

"The past year I read a lot of books, especially classics, which I think helped my vocabulary," she said. "I still guessed on several questions."

Jason first heard of the center because his parents were upset that he failed to study at home.

He always earned A grades in his advanced courses - though he did get a B in home economics. But Jason was able to finish his homework at lunch or on the bus, said his mother, Jong Choe. And he refused to review for tests because he found it unnecessary.

"When he comes home from school, he doesn't study at all," she said.

Frustrated, she enrolled her son in a tutor academy on Saturdays, where he first heard about the Center for Talented Youth. But after about three months, Jason said he had learned all that he could from the classes. Instead, he started practicing at home using SAT workbooks.

Counselors from the center encouraged the Choes to find more challenging work for their son, urging them to consider promoting him to a higher grade or to begin an independent project.

"It's only the beginning, Jason," his father, Sang Choe, told him. "You really have to study now."

The family decided, based on his performance on the promotion test, to send him to high school. "It's just like wasting one more year" to continue to send him to middle school, his mother said.

His former middle school principal, Sharon L. Morell, said Jason was ready for the change.

"He's a very mature young man," Morell said. "He has the personality and emotional makeup to be very successful."

On Wednesday, Jason got his new schedule of classes. They include algebra II, biology, English, computer programming and Spanish.

The high school building "was much bigger, a bit confusing, actually," Jason said. But his guidance counselor gave him a short tour, and his teachers got other students to show him to his next class.

He already can tell that the work is harder and that there will be more homework. "I feel much better, and I feel more in touch with my work," he said.

Jason, who wants to become a mathematician or a chemist, also has earned a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do and, along with his 16-year-old brother, Eugene, has competed nationally and internationally.

A wall in the family's home has three shelves with several trophies and dozens of medals that the two boys have earned. Although many academic awards have been framed and hung on the wall, a stack remains awaiting similar treatment.

"I'm going to have to work faster," said their father.

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