Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Winter B's

The problem with an Acclerated GAT program is that the program is really hard, and it's full of really smart kids.   For those of us who cheated their way in, this is a problem.

My son wakes up 6:30 am.  The bus comes at 7:15.   He gets back at 4:15 and is usually done with his homework at 5:30.  Piano and reading happen after dinner.   This is a very long day for a little kid.  In my culture, we need at least 16 hours of sleep a day.

Each winter, he gets worn down and one or 2 B's appears on the report card.   Part of the problem, I think, is sickness, lack of sleep and just being worn out.   However, the teacher is very reasonable of what she expects, and there's no reason why any child couldn't earn an A.   Write legibly, concentrate, explain, check your work.

Each winter, there is another factor besides exhaustion.  The bar is raised.   Last year, it was science.  This year, reading.  There are technical aspects of reading comprehension that slipped by without notice.   The challenge for us this year is a test consisting of questions about a written passage (or a book that they are reading in class).  My son likes to see if he can write 3 words or less and get the test over with.

So guess what we are doing in this house for home schooling?  A crash course in creative writing.   First, we take all of the technical things aspects of his course, whatever these are.  Plot, main character, climax, I have to google these.  Then I have to show him how to read a story checking off these things in his mind in preparation for the questions that follow.  This is just like the SAT.   Then we just have to practice writing long sentences that have the word "because" in them and a clause that elaborates on who what why when and whatever.  Yesterday, I found a page in my Vocabulary Workshop book that requires the student to write 19 sentences.  That's what we did.  It was hell.

This year, another surprise.   He bombed a math test and ended up with a B, because, in his words, he ran out of time.   This child is doing pretty well studying 6-8 grade algebra.   I see focus and diligence, and he tends to start and finish his math homework in one efficient tour de force of concentration and purpose (for a 9 year old boy).  Clearly, this is a horrible injustice and a cruel twist of fate.

I need to diagnose this issue:  First, I can rule out that he's a genius because he's not.  Next, he might have been sick that day.  Or, he may just be slow and plodding, which is fine in math.   But the 2 most likely options in this scenario are a) he needs to practice arithmetic because it's slowing him down on the test and b) we should just give up until math turns more analytic and becomes more interesting.  I'm going with a).  I'm not a huge fan of Kumon, but each year we spend at least 3 or 4 weeks practicing the basics ala Kumon.

It's great having a child in an accelerated program where he's challenged on the right level.  This is the level that the rest of the world is at (read the Smartest Kids in the World) and is age appropriate.  The challenge is that we have to constantly address gaps and new skills to keep up.  This level is for families working together that put education first.

Finally, after coming up with a weekend program to address the reading issue, I let him know what to expect from me if he gets all A's by the end of the year.  I told him exactly what his teacher wants and why, how much work it would be, and what I was willing to do to show him my appreciation for a job well done.

Test Scores are In

While we're waiting for test scores for the 2013-2014 test prep season, I was surprised to receive the scores for NWEA assessment against the common core standards for my third grader.  I thought that Illinois was moving toward this, but apparently my son took the test in Fall 2012, Winter 2013, and a few weeks ago for Winter 2014.  All the scores came on one sheet.

Each of the scores are broken down four ways for competitive parents to poor over the data and plan a comeback strategy for their kid.

The reason why I'm focusing on a comeback strategy for high achieving students is that the only place to go is down.   Suppose that your child is in the 99th percentile.  They have a 1/3 change of doing poorly on a bad day and scoring in the 85% to 90% percentile, a 1/3 chance of doing great at 99%, and a 1/3 chance of getting a 110% if there was such a score on a really good day.  On average, your genius child would get a 85% to 90% ranking every three years and it would break your heart.  You would curse the teacher and blame yourself.   Well, here we are in third grade.

When my son started 1st grade, he was 2 years ahead in math, and we focused on laziness since his accelerated program is only 1 year ahead in math until 5th or 6th grade.  I am literally focusing on laziness.  If I catch him working hard to solve a problem, I'll make him transform or rethink the problem and solve it again without expending mental effort.   If he gets less than 99% on a test, I'm personally wounded, but in truth we are just biding our time through arithmetic until we can get to real math.  I should be drilling him on multiplication and division, but instead we're working through 7th grade algebra.  This isn't going to help us on the bi-annual assessment.

Language is another story.  When he got to first grade, he read at about the first grade level, which was a disaster for a program that used a third grade language arts text book.  Shame on me.  Now he's a third grader who is not overly thrilled to read Little House on the Prairie and other boring books, despite my pleading with him to read carefully so he can take an AP English course in high school and read even more boring books.   His weakness on the Common Core assessment is the part where you have to read stories and answer questions.   I remember very clearly reading these passages on tests in grade school at least 2 or 3 times and not retaining any of it by the time I finished the last sentence and started the 1st question.  If anyone knows how to solve this problem, please post a comment.

In the meantime, I am continuing my project of looking through every adolescent book in the library in the hopes of finding something that is suitable for a 5th or 6th grader, but has the maturity of a 3rd or 4th grader, and is not contrary to my values.  So far, I've come up with James Patterson and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Not great literature, but at least it uses the occasional new vocabulary word.   Plus it's nice to see my son waking up and grabbing his book, or staying up late to read.   I am reading the material myself to make sure it is clean.  I can see why James Patterson sold 260 million books.

I don't see any reason why my children can't get 99% of everything, other than a long list of reasons why a little boy will not do well on a test on any given day.  It's not an unreasonable request that they put school first and know their stuff.

Related to the annual assessment, the test-prep that we continue to do and will hopefully continue through the rest of grade school is the Vocabulary Workshop.  I mentioned this a few times in the past, but now I'm going to explain why I think it's good test prep for the OLSAT and the COGAT.

First of all, these tests are vocabulary centric, and have a vocabulary section.  I don't think it would be worthwhile to create a stack of 1000 flashcards and drill your child on vocabulary words.   Although I'm going to actually try this if we have to take this test again next year.  Test prep workbooks are not a good way to learn vocabulary compared to reading and talking.  Vocabulary Workshop does a fairly good job of staying interesting.

Secondly, the cognitive skills tests are looking for kids who can figure things out, not necessarily kids who know some knowledge.  That means that the question itself is not as interesting as the answer choice.  What I like the most about Vocabulary Workshop is that most of the questions in the first and second books are either from a choice box, or are antonyms or synonyms.   Add 2 lazy boys who would rather be playing than doing Vocabulary on Saturday morning.  This equals 2 kids trying to figure out the correct answer without having to think.   That is the definition of cognitive skill.  This is what I like the most about the book.

The vocabulary section is going to be our weakest section because I've got the math and logic licked.  Therefore I prefer to work on vocabulary year round.  Since there are about 12 Vocabulary Workshop books (from about First Grade through High School), there is an unlimited supply of material.  It gets harder gradually, but never is too hard.   More and more words are completely new.

What I'm hoping for from this book is that the verbal portion of my child's brain is getting a workout and that mental strength will help on the test.  I have noticed that when they read, they do not struggle with new vocabulary.

Recently, I recommended Building Thinking skills as a critical thinking textbook.  I used it starting at the beginning of test prep season until about the last month or two before the test.   My second recommendation is Vocabulary Workshop year round from 1st grade until they pass the selective enrollment exam for High School.

The next time I post on test prep, I'm going to cover every single book with shapes in it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

After the Test

The test is over.   Now is time to start thinking about the next test.

February through June or July is considered the off season.   I'm a little burnt out with test prep material, and turn to academics with enthusiasm.  This year, in addition to my Kindergarten routine with the world's most over test prepped boy, I'm doing something different.  I am going to be the math coach of a normal third grader.

The normal third grader, with normal skills and a normal academic experience is an neighbor who joined my Math Stars program in Kindergarten.  He showed immense promise.   These days he spends most of his free time with sports.   I called his mom and explained my interest, and she is excited.   This is like Phil Jackson showing up and offering to teach your son basketball.  Only in this case, it's going to be math.  (Phil Jackson was the Bulls coach when Michael Jordan played.)

Each week we work through problems of all types while I take a skills inventory.   There are many skills involved in math beyond arithmetic, and like most kids, he has not yet learned them yet.  The COGAT specifically tests for these skills because they are the predictors of an academic superstar.  For example, I can remember teaching my oldest son arithmetic when he was 5 or 6.  I was drilling him with a single math card.  It was 3 + 4.  The conversation went like this:

What is 3 + 4?

[Lots of thinking, counting on fingers]  7.

Ok, how about 3 + 4?

[More thinking, counting on fingers]  7

3 + 4?

[Lots of thinking, counting]  8.

This went on for about 10 minutes and I finally asked why he didn't just remember that the answer was 7 and just repeat it each time.  It never occurred to him.  He finally figured it out about 6 weeks later.  Check off Skill #1.

A more advanced skill is looking at a match concept like algebra, and reading through the example on page 1.  On page #2, there is an almost identical question.  Maybe the 7 is changed to a 9.   Some kids can compare and figure out the game.  Others stare at page 2 like it's completely new.   Little boys who work with Lego instruction manuals have a leg up on this skill.  This is Skill #2.

Most of my work with this third grader, under the guise of "math", will be to teach these skills, among other life lessons.  I expect his grades to go up across the board.  I train academic super stars.

The standard test prep material is not designed to teach these cognitive skills.  This material is designed to make the kids comfortable with the test format and some of the rules specific to question types and remove the element of surprise (which, alas, is part of what the testers are measuring).  I suppose if a child does thousands of practice questions (which we did) that he'll pick up these skills.

One book in particular attempts to teach some of these skills, including skill #2 mentioned above, and lots of others.   This is Building Thinking Skills by the Critical Thinking Company.   I have the first three:  1st grade, 2-3 grade, and 4-6 grade.   Consider this my first book review from a very tall stack of books of this type.

The good news about this series is that it directly addresses the cognitive skills that the child needs in school, and to some extent, on the tests like the COGAT and OLSAT.  The problem with these books is that their target is the above average child (50 to 75 percentile), and I need a child to be in the 99.8th percentile at a minimum.

I had the Level 1 book when my first son was preparing for the Grade 1 test (he was in Kindergarten).  It was too easy and we never used it.   When my second child was 4, and we were gearing up for the K test, the book came in handy.  Then I had an epiphany.  If this book supplements academic material, then the 1st Grade book is suitable for a 1st Grader to close some skill gaps.  But if this material is used for entry into an accelerated GAT program, then buy the book for the year of your aspirations, which in Chicago, is 2 years ahead.

Before my son turned 5, we worked through the Grade 2-3 book.   The challenge with this approach is that there is reading and writing at the 1st or 2nd grade level.  This made the book a bit painful because there was new vocabulary and new concepts.  We slowed down to a 1 or 2 pages 3 or 4 times a week, and guess what?  He learned the material.  Lesson to parents - any kid can learn anything.  At this time, I was willing to do all of the writing if he did the thinking and talking.  I would read the instructions if necessary.   After a while, he became annoyed that I was having all of the fun and demanded to write himself.

In prior posts, I have been ambivalent about whether or not teaching your child to read is going to give him an advantage on the test.  On one side of the argument, most of the kids entering GAT read 1 to 3 years ahead.  Conversely, we got in the first time by skipping reading.   I can now say that teaching your child to read is a good thing for 2 reasons.  #1, it exposes him to lots of testable terms and concepts, and all you have to do is sit there.  #2, he can do workbooks on his own, and this extends the efficiency of test prep.

As the test approached, I got more desperate for material (since I burned through most of it on the Kindergarten test).  So I bought  Building Thinking Skills Grade 4-6 and me and the 5 year old muddled through.   The language and vocabulary sections were perfect for the skills they taught, but unfortunately the advanced vocabulary precluded using about half of it.  The rest of the book was very useful material, although we went very slowly.

If I taught Kindergarten at a charter school, this is the material I would teach.  Kids can learn anything, including advanced problem solving skills.  Most of the material is 1 to 3 years behind.  It's hard for most kids, super hard, but this doesn't mean to stop.  It means to go slow.