Monday, July 18, 2016

Raising the COGAT Score After 4th grade

A reader recently asked what to do about the COGAT with a 5th grade child.   I've been thinking a lot about this lately because our next big testing event is 7th grade.  This is the year children are tested for high school enrollment in Chicago.

There is really very little good material after the 1st grade, and many children did it all before 1st grade anyway because grade school enrollment is so competitive.  Fortunately, the COGAT tends to become more verbal after the early years and starts to look more like the SAT.  In addition, the SAT has changed dramatically in the last few decades and now evaluates a similar skill set as the COGAT, because it's a better predictor of school success than 350 vocabulary questions.

Before you begin working on the COGAT score, ask yourself what the test this test is all about. Schools use it to find children who will do really well in school.  In the case of the COGAT, the test makers spend a lot of energy find questions that predict future success, as opposed to current success, in the hopes of identifying children who may not be in a good school, who may not come from a privileged background, but have the skill set that would make them top students in a rigorous program.  In the US, this would benefit non-immigrant minorities, and this makes the COGAT authors feel good about themselves.  In my opinion, since the COGAT authors spent the last 30 years making millions of dollars testing for skills that they don't tell anyone about, instead of figuring out how to teach these skills, they are evil.

The way top students go about figuring out challenging and novel problems differs from how most kids (even top students) work through grade level academic material.  Unfortunately, by the end of 4th grade, a child has spent 1,000's of hours doing things the wrong way, probably getting straight A's while doing it, and has accumulated a lot of bad habits that need to be undone before middle school, regardless of the COGAT.

The first step is to find material.  I recommend Continental Press Level E (which is 5th grade) reading comprehension.  Maybe level F for advanced readers.  I use reading comprehension to teach the skill set.  A good vocabulary book certainly helps.  I recommend Vocabulary Workshop.  Vocab only takes about 30 minutes a week.  If your child did this for 4 years already it's optional.  By that point, in my experience, kids learn vocab words on sight because they are little vocab machines.  Memory is like a muscle, and it needs exercising.

The summer after 4th grade, we used the SAT publisher's prep book.  It only cost $10, and we only used it for math.  If this sounds insane, and it is, then there are many good pre-algebra books by Kumon.  If you use a pre-algebra book, do not read the introduction about how to solve the problems. If your child figures this out on his own, that's OK.

The first set of skills we want our child to develop are taking a long time reading and thinking through the question, considering the answer choices (if there are any), possibly eliminating a few answers, and then reading the question a few more times.  If the child is adept at this approach, then she can learn the higher order skills on her own.

With math, I handed my son the SAT book and asked for him to find 4 problems that he thought he could do.  That forced him to spend most of his time looking through the questions.

Then, as he began to run out of easy problems, I started asking him to explain each problem to me. It's really hard for a parent not to focus on the solution or teach him math, which changes the goal, but instead just walk through questions with him until he understands them.  Usually this involves reading and rereading the question. Lately, we've been doing a little geometry and some functions (he's older, obviously), and we spend almost all of our time just trying to figure out questions.  Once the question is well understood, the rest of the problem is just arithmetic and this goes quickly.

If you take a peak inside of Test Prep Math Level 2, and read the introduction, you'll see the core skills laid out.  (Google Test Prep Math COGAT on Amazon).  This presentation was motivated by problem solving skills set for High School geometry and an effective approach to middle school math that is now changing curriculum.  So don't be put off if it shows up in a book for 2nd and 3rd graders. The intro in Test Prep Math Level 3 is very similar, but I wrote Level 2 later, so the introduction is better.

Most of the work in the COGAT is evaluating the question and evaluating solutions.  This is not to say the actual figuring out isn't hard, but many points are lost by kids who jump right to the figuring out and miss something that they need to know first.  With the COGAT, some times part of the question shows up in the solution.   Speed hurts the score.

With Reading Comprehension, the goal is to figure out what the question is asking and a good way to answer it.  This is a different approach than answering the question.  On top of that, there is a lot of material that taxes working memory, and reading the question involves, well, lots of patient reading. For this reason, reading comprehension is excellent test prep.  The best way to do reading comprehension is to spend lots of time figuring out why a question was answered wrong to get insight into what the question is trying to do, and this reinforces an extremely important test skill called trying again.  It's an important skill on the COGAT because problems are designed so that the child gets the wrong answer (in my opinion), so a child who is frustrated because they spent the last 4 years begin taught that correct answers determine how smart you are is going to do poorly until they get over it.

Working memory is a big factor in tests, as is vocabulary.  For many years, I packed my kids brains full of vocabulary.  They didn't realize how bad it was because Vocabulary Workshop is a lot of fun for kids.  But vocab and working memory are really 2 different things.  At the end of each Test Prep Math book, I put in a section of working memory arithmetic, and made it 2 or 3 times as hard as I thought the COGAT would be.  I wouldn't pay for this book for a 5th grader, but if there was a little brother in the house, I'd make the 5th grader do the problems as well.  Expect tears for older kids.  It's offensive to some kids that a simple arithmetic problem would take 15 minutes to figure out.  That's 15 minutes for an adult with years of graduate math.

Recently, I discovered that adding mixed fractions have a similar load on working memory, provided that your child does a small number of fractions and does then mentally with no writing.  Bad way to do math, great way to build working memory for the COGAT.  As a bonus, doing 4 fractions problems (instead of 30) with no help (well, maybe a little discussion), is a great way to learn fractions as well.  Encourage your child to come up with creative ways to think through the fractions to compensate for the lack of a pencil and paper.   This helps problem solving skills.  I'm doing this right now with my other child, and he's developing whatever is the next level of number sense with fractions.  I'll write about this when I'm finished because it doesn't have a name yet.

These problem solving skills are the next level of COGAT skills (after patience and reading the question thoroughly, doing it over, etc). As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter what the application because problem solving skills are problem solving skills, and the COGAT problems are all new and unexpected anyway, even if you have a test prep book that purports to be just like the COGAT.  Pre algebra is good and fractions are good if you do only a page or a small number of problems and take your time. Somewhere in my blog I discuss George Poyla's work and the problem solving skills are there.

I've made it very clear to my children that I'm not impressed if they solved a complicated problem, but I'm very impressed if they broke it down into 2 or more really simple problems to solve. Math is all about cheating.  Solving fractions is not a useful skill, but cheating will help a child go far in life. This works really well only if I remember to rip out and dispose of the solutions in the back of the book and hide the calculators.  If they figure out how to really cheat, then my fallback plan is for them to explain how to solve the problem, and it better be really creative or they'll end up with "Oh yeah, then do these 3 pages Mr. Smarty pants".  

Since I've eliminated the solutions, this raises the probability that I'll get a problem wrong when asked to help, or have to stare at the problem for 20 minutes trying to figure it out.  There are a few really good studies that demonstrate that this is the single biggest factor in raising smart children, and therefore, I'm usually totally baffled when we work together.

Finally, after all of this, a practice test is useful for a few points because familiarity with the test format saves time and headaches during the test.

I hope this helps the reader who asked.  It's certainly doable to spend a day on some math and a day on some reading comprehension during the summer.  If the parent approaches this work with the right attitude, and enforces the correct habits with their children, the results in school will be dramatic.


  1. My child is a rising first grader and I had a weekly math plan for summer following next year's school curriculum for example week 1 addition week 2 subtraction week 3 multiplication week 4 time...etc. When we're about week 3 now, I did a review sheet and noticed that she is struggling now with some basic addition and subtraction that we did 3 weeks ago although on week 1 she was amazing and getting all the questions right which surprised me. What can I do? How can I modify my weekly math plan so it's not like she can't do basic stuff all of a sudden? BIG SIGH

    1. This used to really frustrate me until I noticed 2 things. First, 40% of the time is bad days, for no apparent reason. Secondly, after 6 months of this the kid turns out to totally get it despite no skill on my part.

      You may have to email me directly for more guidance, but I would recommend throwing out your curriculum and getting Every Day Math Student Journal Volume 1 for Grade 2, and then go on problem at a time. It goes really slowly at first. Practicing arithmetic on it's own is a disaster.

  2. I am going to be rambling a little bit here because I was just talking to my new neighbor but do want to ask you a question.

    My neighbor has two girls who are currently in GT program Grade 3 and Grade 4. On top of that, they're excellent in many areas, e.g., gymnastics, tennis, swimming, piano, visual arts, theatre...etc. and getting prizes too.

    I mean how is this possible? As a mom of a rising grade 1 and grade 2 who will take GT tests next year, I am curious about how she did and what she did with her girls. When I asked her she just said nothing special and her girls are special and motivated and she didn't do much, but I know that is not true.

    How can a kid do all of those without a parent's extremely hard work, planning, finding the right piano/gym teacher and finding the right workbooks and pushing/encouraging kids to do homework, practice music..etc. Am I right?

    My kids are not gifted and talented in math, reading or any music or sports but I try to do my best to guide them following your curriculum (thank you!). Sometimes I wonder what I am doing and why I am pushing average kids who are whining about homework or music practice assignment they get from me and try to make them someone they are not and also if the total transformation therefore making it to GT next year and surviving there is even possible if I give this 200% myself.


    1. I hate people like this. I think the first 3 years of my blog are written exclusively for parents like you of kids like yours and mine.

      Here I am 5 years later and we get crying and whining every night at music practice. But they do it, and they've become really good. You might want to read my blog from the beginning on any page where I'm frustrated.

      GT is all about the right skillset to be a success in school and everything else. It doesn't happen magically, although some parents do it at age 1 or 2 and then block out the hell they went through, like 3 hours of reading a day. For the rest of us, it can happen later, as late as age 15, and once the kid gets it, he's got it. That's why you're interested in GT. The sooner the better. Some day I'll write a book, but in the mean time, it's all here somewhere in the blog. I've been told by many readers they went through the whole thing and it was a huge help, although there are at least 100 articles I should just delete some day.