Friday, April 29, 2016

Crush the COGAT Part 1

The COGAT test has always been my favorite cognitive skills test.  This test has the clearest link between the test questions and strong academic skills, and it is the most popular test used by school districts across the country to identify "gifted" students.  In my opinion, the COGAT simply identifies children with solid academic skills who are most likely to excel in school.

I've always monitored my children's level of cognitive skills even after they both passed the COGAT, because these skills are absolutes essential to doing well in school and surviving an accelerated GAT program.  

The skills list goes beyond identifying a child who likes to read and do math homework.  The skill set is more fundamental, like a child who explores a novel problem patiently and with interest, evaluates the solution set, checks the answer and tries repeatedly.  These skills are not common and are somewhat painful to teach.  School curriculum teaches the opposite of these skills, with an emphasis on memorization, routine practice, and speed.  So the COGAT battle isn't over after the child practices the test but is ongoing.

The COGAT has a time element which is the fact that school districts set a date for the test.   A parent will begin preparing their child at some time before the test, whether it's 6 months or 1 month.  It's never enough to make me comfortable, but it can be enough to get the job done.

There are 3 sections on the COGAT, verbal (or non-verbal for little kids), quantitative (something that looks like math), and figure matrices and folding questions.

I have a 4 part approach to coaching for the COGAT that focuses on the skills the COGAT is measuring.  Focusing on navigating the test and teaching practice questions is ineffective because practice questions will pale in comparison to the thinking required to succeed on the test, and this test is all about thinking, not knowing.

Part 1 - Base Skills
The first part of COGAT preparation involves slowing down the pace of the work to give your child plenty of room to think and to ponder.  Taking a whole practice test in one sitting seems like a good idea but is a disaster; this type of practice is enforcing the wrong skill set.   The ideal pace is one really complicated challenging question per day.  With easier material and shorter sections, we go up to 6 questions a day, but spend a lot of time over analyzing each question, even the simple ones.  Sometimes I think this is more parent training than child training.

Part 2 - Verbal Skills
My recommendation is to read a lot and tackle a unit of Vocabulary Workshop over a two week period for kids who can already read.   Vocabulary Workshop is an effective teacher of thoughtful guessing.  The bigger a child's vocabulary, the better the child will do on the test.  A strong vocabulary might help with 70% of this test, regardless of the content.  I've written vocabulary before.  Vocabulary alone is a strong predictor of academic success, and the makers of the COGAT know it.  For children younger than 5, there's still a requirement for lots of reading, but the parent is doing almost all of the reading.

Currently, there is nothing on the market that adequately prepares a child for this section.  I'm working on something special for 4 year olds, but I'll need a few more months.  Stay tuned.  I've been working on this for a long time.  It's not easy.

Part 3 - Figure Matrices and Folding Questions
This section provides the biggest benefit for coaching because bright children tend to make up their own rules in defiance to the test and can really screw up their score by too much creative thinking.  There are lots of standard COGAT practice tests on the market, and while these are much too easy to make your child smarter, the exercises are really effective at identifying silly mistakes and incorrect approaches that would ruin the score.  Familiarity with the test format can add 5% to 10% to a child's score, and it appears to me much of the benefit is in this section.   This section is strongly tied to the base skills.  Keep in mind that the test isn't looking for children who are adept at circles and squares, but adept at thinking and solving unfamiliar problems.  If your child is younger, then the practice tests help more, in that its much more likely that a single problem from the practice test will be a big challenge for the kid.

Part 4 - The Math
The quantitative section plays a special role in my test strategy.  A properly prepared child can breeze through this section and rest up for the other parts of the test.  About 10 years ago, there was an interesting research study that found that 95% of 4th grade students got a question of this type wrong:  7 + 3 = __ + 9.  They just ignored the " + 9 " and answered "10" in the blank.  The COGAT questions incorporate similar frameworks into the quantitative questions on the way to identifying the top 5%.  The COGAT doubles the complexity with number analogies that tax working memory as well as cognitive skills, as well as a sound approach of investigating the question and trying again.

Since the whole test is about thinking, simply being a year or 2 ahead in school math might be helpful won't guarantee success.  It might hurt, if 2 years ahead means math facts, which would be the case for the K-1 crowd. 2nd through 4th grade is even worse, since these kids are mastering speed and memorization - the exact opposite of thinking.

The problem with test prep material for the COGAT is that there is a lot of it on the market up to Kindergarten, and then after that there is not much material.  While preparing for the Kindergarten test, I evaluated and used everything I could find up to 4th grade.   After Kindergarten, there was so little challenging material that I created Test Prep Math Level 2 for 2nd and 3rd grade, and Test Prep Math Level 3 for 3rd and 4th grade.  The difference in these books has less to do with age than where the child is in terms of the underlying cognitive skill set.

While the primary purpose of these books is to build the base skill set using word problems, with math as a secondary objective, the reason I am so excited about these books is the 2nd section which I recently introduced.   Here's an example problem:
25 – 8 = 5 F + 6
7 F + ? = 8 + 8

The format is not similar to the COGAT, but the cognitive demands are a bit higher because the child has to come to terms with "F" and solve a whole bunch of equations such as 8 + 8 = 16 on the way to the answer.  In this example, I count 6 equations.   I call it a working memory builder.  The likelihood of the child needing multiple attempts to get the correct answer is about 100%.  This problem fits in the "one problem a day" category, at least initially.

This question might seem ridiculously hard, but the workbooks include a section of 100 word problems that hammer away at the basic skill set that get the child to the point where he can tackle this problem.  This usually occurs around problem 40 or 50.  I can't imagine any children but my own making it to question 80 (because they were my editors and I had a deadline).  Both books start with slightly easier Section 2 problems and makes them harder, and then I introduce not only G into the mix in a third equation, but I also include "not F" and "not G".   There are other complications as well to prevent the situation where the child knows how to do the problem and is just practicing.  While there is a practical need to not set the bar too high, at least in the beginning, I am paranoid about a child spending 5 minutes on a problem, getting it correct, and learning nothing.

If making a practice question twice as hard as what I think is on the COGAT is effective, why not 4 times has hard?  I think success on the COGAT is simply a byproduct of teaching really powerful thinking skills, skills that are nowhere to be found in school curriculum until middle school or later.

Both my kids had to go through all of the Section 2 problems in both books as my proof readers.  The older one benefited especially.  Before that, he really struggled with the concept of x and y and just didn't get algebraic thinking.   Problem solved.  My little got an unexpected benefit - he learned his math facts before he got math fact worksheets, not from memorization, but from quick thinking.   Since these problems are designed intentionally for a wrong answer on the first or second try, I unintentionally ended up with a problem that might require 30 calculations to get the right answer (assuming the child has to do it 3 times), which is almost a math fact worksheet, only harder.   Over the last year, the little one had to do the 120 problems in the first book and the older one had to do the 120 problems in the second book.  It's like Kumon, only Anti-Kumon.  

The very first problem was insane.  The kids looked at me like I was nuts and it took a long time.   A year later, they could each do a whole page in one sitting, but this was only after I made them do all the problems again to make sure my changes were correct.  Nothing in school is a fraction of this difficulty level, which is why I don't pester my 2nd grader to do math at home, and why the 5th grader is working through his 8th grade math course.


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