Like many honor students with dreams of going to an Ivy League university, Burton Liao has been taking a test preparation course to boost his scores on college entrance exams.
But unlike his classmates in the summer program, Liao has plenty of time left to learn SAT vocabulary words and score-boosting strategies before the big test day arrives.
He's only 13 years old.
While most college-bound students focus on entrance exams heading into their junior or senior year of high school, Liao is entering eighth grade at a public school in Walnut.
In a sign of the intensifying competition to get into top colleges and universities, younger students are enrolling in preparation courses for college tests. Increasingly, students are getting help before beginning their junior year of high school -- and sometimes while still in middle school.
For Liao, a serious boy who hopes to attend Harvard someday, it's just common sense. "It gives you a head start," he explained. The SAT, Liao said, "has tons and tons of vocabulary words, and a lot of math concepts you need to know."
Jeff Rubenstein, who heads research at the Princeton Review test prep company, said the early preparation trend reflects the increased emphasis on standardized testing throughout K-12 education. That, in turn, "has been increasing the sense of necessity ... of test preparation," Rubenstein said.
Some of the most ambitious young test prep students are looking for boosts on the PSAT, an exam mainly used as an SAT practice test. That's because the highest scorers on the PSAT -- fewer than 1% of the high school juniors who take the test every October -- qualify as semifinalists in the competition for National Merit Scholarship awards.
High PSAT scores also can help sway high school guidance counselors who decide which students to approve for advanced placement courses, which are considered essential for applicants to top colleges.
The middle-schoolers seeking test preparation typically are trying to qualify for summer college programs or other special offerings for gifted youngsters that require they take the SAT, PSAT or ACT, another college entrance exam.
All told, the demand from younger students and their families has been high enough that Princeton Review, one of the two big national test preparation firms, launched a program this summer called Smart Start, aimed at seventh to 10th graders. The program, whose cost averages about $500, provides 24 hours of classroom instruction, along with test-taking sessions.
Kaplan Inc., the biggest company in the industry, doesn't offer a program equivalent to Smart Start, but it has had students sign up as early as sixth grade for its Score Prep one-on-one tutoring program. It costs about $100 an hour, normally for a minimum of 15 hours.
The enrollment of younger students, who account for only a small fraction of the nation's estimated $200-million SAT test preparation business, reflects "the increased pressure many families are feeling with regard to college admission," said Karen Blass, a Kaplan spokeswoman.
The early preparation dovetails with a trend toward taking college entrance exams earlier in junior year and taking the PSAT, not just in October of the junior year, but in the fall of the sophomore year too.
That's happening partly because of the early deadlines for seniors to apply for colleges' popular early admissions programs.
Some students also want to get their SATs out of the way earlier to prepare for curriculum-based SAT II exams, which commonly are taken late in the junior year of high school.
Within the test preparation industry, however, providing coaching on college entrance exam skills to middle schoolers, or even ninth or 10th graders, is controversial.
"It's unethical," said Adam Ingersoll, executive director of Ivy West Educational Services, a company serving California. "In ninth and 10th grade, you don't need to be learning strategies for the SAT. You need to be taking challenging classes, reading books ... and being involved in the activities that are important to you."
Without naming any specific offenders, Ingersoll blamed firms that encourage "the trend of families feeling more and more anxious that
Brian O'Reilly, executive director of the SAT program for the New York-based College Board, which owns the SAT, went even further, saying the benefits of most test preparation for students at any age level often are vastly overrated.
He said that test preparation normally improves students' overall results on the SAT, where a top score is 1600, by an average of 30 or 40 points -- far from the gains of more than 100 points claimed by many companies.
Yet many parents contend that early SAT preparation builds their children's academic skills and confidence and reduces their anxiety about taking college entrance exams. That's why Kathy Salmond sent her 14-year-old daughter, Katie, who is entering ninth grade at Villa Park High School in Orange County, to a Princeton Review Smart Start program this summer.
"When she goes in there on the real test day, it'll be like, she's been there, she's done it, she's comfortable with her abilities," Salmond said.
Katie Salmond said she had picked up tips on how to write an essay with a deadline and how to complete math calculations more quickly. "I feel very prepared now," she said.
In Southern California, test prep firms say Asian American families have been particularly receptive to the idea of sending younger students to their centers, which sometimes also offer after-school programs for younger children. Liao, the eldest son of Taiwanese immigrants, attends a program at ACI Institute, an education company that mainly serves Chinese Americans through its network of nine offices in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Liao's mother, Judy Liao, said that one reason she and her husband send their eldest child to ACI is to improve his English language skills. At home, she and her husband mainly speak Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese with their three sons. "My English isn't good," she said.
Burton Liao, though sometimes shy and soft-spoken, mixes in easily with other students at ACI. The respect he has earned from his older classmates was apparent during a recent class when the students played a "high-frequency vocabulary" game.
In the fast-paced competition, students composed sentences missing key vocabulary words -- and then went on the offensive by challenging classmates on other teams to quickly fill the blanks with the best answers. The students generally were wary of going up against their 13-year-old classmate. "Hey, he's smart!" one of the students protested when a teammate decided to challenge Liao during a critical moment of the game.
The school's intensive summer SAT program runs 2 1/2 hours a day, five days a week for as long as 10 weeks, and students also regularly get homework. Parents ordinarily pay $140 to $160 a week.
Liao figures the program is worth the time and effort. "You still have time for play if you manage your schedule well," he said.