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.