Thursday, July 23, 2015

Struggling Through Test Prep

A reader commented recently that her child was struggling with a some math/vocabulary question:  "Struggling with summer math.  My little one is not getting this 'more than' and 'fewer than' question, A has 7 coins, B has 4 fewer than A, how many coins A and B had altogether?  Concluded today's homework by screaming for an hour".

This situation seems very normal to me, and I lived through it, and my reply is to give the kid a snack and expect to spend 1 to 3 weeks on this question.

A few days later I started having flashbacks to all of the crying, and the high error rate, especially with the word "fewer".   My child took months to get the word "fewer".  It used to drive me nuts.

The process of learning vocabulary for little kids is a mirror of the cognitive skills test.  Parents are tossing out big new words left and right in long, multi-clausal sentences from birth (the good parents are) and the child has to use context, inference, similarities and differences, classification, analogy, and a host of very sophisticated mental skills to figure out what the words mean just to survive in his own house.

"Fewer" works at even a higher level, because it challenges the child's world view.  "More" is much simpler. More means "give me more".   It means better, and it means me.   "Fewer", on the other hand, introduces injustice, fairness, trade offs, and the fact that if I get more than someone else will get less.   Once you start using the word "fewer" with a little kid, you've introduced philosophy, and it takes a while for the child to digest it.

Learning vocabulary is Extreme Test Prep for a 2 or 3 year old.

I've been reading the works of this guy named "Robert Thorndike" who said essentially the same thing about reading some 80 years ago.  Reading early is Extreme Test Prep for 3 and 4 year olds, and it is the test in a nutshell on a daily basis in the same way I outlined above for vocabulary.   Way back then, the psychology industrial megaplex was on the verge of figuring out how to make kids smarter until then they discovered all of the money to be made from assessment tests. The only country that escaped this trap was Finland.  When a child is born in Finland, an agency worker delivers 2 books to the bedside, one for the child, and one for the mother.

I read an interview from 2006 from the author of the COGAT, David Lohman.  In the article, Lohman laments that practicing for a cognitive skills test can increase scores 5 to 10%, and even more if coaching is involved.  I have found in my own work that consistent parent coaching can raise scores by more than 50%.  Lohman complains that this effect has undesirable consequences.   Personally, I have found desirable consequences, including a brighter child who is more apt to do well in and enjoy school, a child who demonstrates insight and sympathy, a child who has good judgement and who I can trust.

Here are your options on how to pass the test:
1.  Talk a lot at age 2
2.  Read a lot at age 3 and 4
3.  Test prep a lot thereafter

Now that I'm past the early test, awaiting the next one, I've become a lot more interested in developing really good thinking skills and a love of learning than I am with grades or the annual academic challenge called the achievement test.

The undesirable consequences that Lohman was referring to are related to the reasonable observation that academic achievement is comprised of cognitive skills, interest in the subject matter, and the will to do it.  He noted that giving a child the edge in cognitive skills who doesn't have the other two qualities can result in a more desirable candidate being left out of the program.

My problem with test prep is that building cognitive skills might jeopardize or diminish interest and/or will and in the end undermine the eventual goal.  This is weighed against the assumption that if a child doesn't have the cognitive skills and you don't teach him these skills, the likely result will be frustration and not interest in academic subject matter and the will to avoid it.

Second grade is the year I stop all at home academic work of any kind other than lots of reading.  Last time I did this, it resulted in 2 years of A's.   The problem this year is that I'm working on A Very Special Math Book and my editor is the second grader in question, so he's stuck doing these math problems.


  1. My five year old has about a year to NNAT test and two years to COGAT test. Just to see where he is before I do any serious test prep, I let him do some practice questions of both tests and she got 60% wrong on NNAT and 30% wrong on COGAT. I am sure this is pretty bad. How many questions does he need to get it right/wrong to get into GAT program?

    1. My kid was getting at least 50% wrong a year before the test. He was still getting questions wrong the week before the test The good news is that the NNAT is the easiest to prep for- meaning once he gets it, here score will go up with practice, and the skills required for the COGAT are teachable. Which was the only reason I started this website.