Thousands of eighth-graders across Long Island are getting an earlier introduction these days to the academic challenges of high school - sitting for three-hour state exams once reserved mostly for teens a year or two older.

Growing numbers of these "accelerated" 13- and 14-year-olds have just finished taking Regents exams, for credits that will count toward their high school diplomas. In some middle schools, exams once considered appropriate only for honors-track students now are being taken - and passed - almost universally.

State exams in algebra and biology, now called Living Environment, were administered last week. An exam in Earth Science, or geology, was given Tuesday.

In many middle schools, exam preparations are marked by repeated practice tests, early-morning review sessions and teacher pep talks. While some educators and parents worry mass acceleration may overwhelm students and increase failures in schools that don't prepare carefully, students themselves often find the exams easier than they imagined.

"My teacher told us that 91 percent of eighth-graders passed Earth Science Regents last year," said Michael Spelfogel, 14, an eighth-grader at South Side Middle School in Rockville Centre, where Regents-level testing is universal. "That made me feel really confident."

 

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More young test-takers

Accelerated testing is part of a broader academic push - backed by national political and educational leaders - that starts as early as fourth or fifth grade, and is intended to give students the academic tools they need to complete college-level courses before they leave high school. Eighth grade is pivotal in this movement, and the extent of the push on the Island is illustrated by last year's state exam results recently obtained by Newsday.

According to that data, 95 percent or more of eighth-graders passed Regents algebra exams in Locust Valley, North Shore, Rockville Centre, Shelter Island and Syosset. More than 80 percent passed in Oceanside, Plainedge and Westhampton Beach.

Islandwide, just over 30 percent of all eighth-graders - a total of 11,400 students - took and passed algebra exams last year. That number is up sharply from two years ago, when 8,800 eighth-graders took and passed a math exam.

Direct comparisons are difficult, because the earlier exam, known as Regents Math A, covered more material, and many students waited until the middle of ninth grade to take it. Comparisons are clearer in the sciences, where the number of eighth-graders passing exams jumped from 9,660 in 2007 to 11,770 last year - a rise of 22 percent.

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Under state rules, students must score 65 or higher to earn credit toward Regents diplomas.

Accelerated Regents testing began in the late 1980s. More recently, some Island middle schools have dramatically increased the number of students accelerated - in communities both affluent and modest.

Middle-class Oceanside, for example, has boosted the number of eighth-graders taking and passing Regents math exams from 20 percent to nearly 86 percent over the past five years. In the William Floyd district, which serves neighborhoods of more modest means in the Mastics / Shirley area, percentages have risen from 20 percent to nearly 64 percent over two years.

Alaina Jones, 14, an eighth-grader at William Paca Middle School, part of the Floyd system, said friends in a nearby district often express surprise that she and her classmates take Regents exams at such young ages.

"People say, 'Wow! You must be really smart,' " Jones said.

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National leaders would like to see still more eighth-graders taking courses and tests in Algebra 1 - basically, the first in a sequence of college-prep math courses taken in high school.

The National Governors Association made this clear earlier this month when it released recommended sets of "core" academic standards in math and other subjects. If states choose to adopt the math standards, for example, students would be ready for Algebra 1 by eighth grade - in turn, giving students time to prepare for college-level calculus by senior year.

 

Academic concerns

But the idea of mass acceleration worries many parents and educators, who contend many young adolescents aren't mature enough to handle the pressure. Among the skeptics is Peter Osroff, Garden City Middle School principal and past co-president of the Nassau County Middle Level Principals' Association.

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Osroff has nothing against acceleration per se. His association and its Suffolk County counterpart last spring came out in favor of opening up Regents-level courses to any students wishing to try them. But while Osroff's school observes an "open" approach to admissions decisions, fewer than 60 percent of students opt for acceleration.

"Do we want to push children so hard that they don't enjoy a subject?" Osroff asks.

Others consider such concerns overblown. Rockville Centre superintendent William Johnson notes that acceleration there gives many students a head start toward earning college-level International Baccalaureate credits before they leave high school. Last year, 95.5 percent of eighth-graders passed Regents algebra; 90.3 percent passed Regents Earth Science.

"A rising tide brings everybody up with it," Johnson said.