Friday, January 27, 2017

The 3rd Grade Test Prep Stack

For years I've been bemoaning the dearth of test prep material after the 1st grade.  In the old days, sane school districts would start their accelerated or gifted program in the 4th grade, making grade 3 the big testing year.  Fourth grade is still a key entry point to GAT.  In Chicago, 4 seats are added to the 4th grade in many programs.

One of the boy scout dads in our 3rd grade den asked for some guidance, so I promised I would bring "some books" from my comprehensive library of COGAT prep material to a meeting. This dad is a doctor, probably an anesthesiologist; he is also one of the nicest people on the planet, and he happened to be on the boy scout camping trip when both of my sons got fishing hooks caught in their arm within 45 minutes of each other and is therefore also the family surgeon. To make it even worse, he became a foster parent and asked what he could do about getting into one of Chicago's top schools. By "make it worse", I mean "make me feel worse about how lousy I am as a human being compared to this guy."

Before going to boy scouts, I loaded my bag with books.

The 3rd grade boys spent the session carving soap with butter knives.  I think most of these kids could handle something much sharper, but the risk of one kid accidentally stabbing another is about 300%.  During a break in the action, Wonder Dad stopped by and I pulled out my stack of books to walk him through the curriculum.

I looked at the 7 inch stack of books and I realized for the first time that when I say "there isn't much material for this age" I mean "Here is way more material than a kid could actually do in a reasonable amount of time."  I have a 3 foot stack for Kindergarten test prep, so 7 inches seems pretty meager. In retrospect, I only recommend a 7 inch stack for K.

Here's the list in order of easy to hard, which is roughly the order that the child would be introduced to the books.
  1. Building Thinking Skills grades 4 to 6.   No one has ever complained to me that this is hard. Working ahead requires going much slower, but this enforces the skills in parent and child that is the key to GAT.
  2. Vocabulary Workshop, starting with grade level.   Best book ever.  It's fun for the kids, maybe not immediately, but certainly after the child has to do the other work.
  3. A single COGAT practice test from Mercer to become familiar with the format and rules of the test.
  4. A double practice test for Smart Cookie for the COGAT.  These questions are much more creative and unusual compared to Mercer, a bit less like the test, but a bit better for learning.
  5. I didn't bring the NNAT book for 3rd and 4th grade, but this would be on my list as well if there was enough time for test prep.  I might use this instead of #4.
  6. A 5th grade Reading Comprehension book from Contentment Press (Level E in this case). To simulate the actual conditions of the test, we did one or two questions about every 3 to 4 weeks.  This material isn't used to teach verbal skills, but to teach doing confusing and baffling questions way beyond your level for an hour skills.
  7. Test Prep Math Level 2.  Maybe Level 3, depending on where the child is with working memory and core academic skills.
  8. If the child has a year to prepare, I would also recommend 3rd or 4th grade reading comprehension from Continental Press to alternate with Vocabulary Workshop.
If a child did the whole stack thing in 3rd grade, and the parent coached it properly as described in the TPM introduction, I would expect the normal slightly above average child to end up at about 99.999% by test time, whether the test is the COGAT or the ITBS or both. For a child 3 months from test time, I think I would pick just one practice test from #3, #4, and #5, and just get one reading comprehension book.  I'd probably just do Level D. 

It's hard enough reading polite people, let alone nice doctors, but I challenge anyone to tell me what an anesthesiologist is thinking.  When I showed him Test Prep Math Level 2, I think I got a slight, subtle reaction of Shock and Horror or Bemusement that a child would be expected to answer any of the questions in this book.  I opened it to the middle and asked him to read one of the questions.  I think he expected to understand the question quickly and know the answer immediately, but as my readers know, the book is specifically designed so that you can't understand the question unless you think about it carefully. That's the whole point of gifted and talented.  No child is going to go from 50% to 99% by doing a bunch of easy problems, and that's why I think Building Thinking Skills falls a bit short and why I recommend jumping to the 4-6 grade book. BTS was written when the GAT cutoff was much lower and coaching practices had not been developed.

I flipped to the next page and their was the Roberta Bondar question.  The question text for this question fills the page. The child is asked to calculate how many years of graduate school the parents have to pay for if the child wants to be an astronaut scientist, which is what I was thinking when I first used this material.  Bondar has something like 23 graduate degrees and this question came directly from a wiki.  It's one of the easier questions because once the child realizes that he just has to add the numbers, there's not much more to it.  Someday, this skill will come in handy when the child has 500 pages to read each week and only 15 hours to do it.  Regardless, from now on I'm not going to show this book to parents unless their child is already in a GAT program.  I'll just sit down with their child and coach them through a few problems, and then list all of the cognitive skills just exercised to the parent.

This solid approach is undercut by a late start.  In the case of Wonder Dad, he registered for the test as soon as possible and they already took it, which is one of the worst things a parent can do.  Always delay the test to the last possible minute when you have a stack of test prep material.

For parents who come late to the game, here's the strategy.   Do all of the above, and finish as much as possible, especially TPM which is the most challenging book on the list.  Well, reading comp Level E is ridiculously hard, but you should at least finish Level C.   The next step is to do next year's school's math book. The following year, you can bring your child's test scores to the principal and teacher and ask why they would penalize your brilliant child by excluding this kid from the GAT program.  If you live in Chicago, take the test again because there are open seats every single year.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Birth of a Skill

A few weeks ago, I sat down with a child who just turned five to work through Shape Size Color Count.   This book is for a child who is about 4, give or take, but she is one of my Pre-K Phonics testers and is going to sit for the COGAT next year.  A few weeks with SSCC won't hurt.

Up to this point, it never occurred to me to check what would happen with an older child who never had math phonics. With really young children, the work is slow going, as in a few problems a day while the skills set slowly matures.  It's gratifying to see the results down the road, but the process can be slow and painful, with setbacks.  This is by design.  The best thing you can do for a child is present the child with material that is really challenging, something they don't get on the first try. In other words, something that requires a lot of thinking and learning.  Growth in cognitive skills happens with 1-5 questions that take a long time, like 15 to 20 minutes for a 4 year old.  With a 5 year old, we were doing a question in about 20 or 30 seconds from SSCC.

The goal of SSCC is a long list of skills. I think I could get through this book in 4 to 6 weeks with a child who is 4 and 1/2.   This is good, because a child who is 4 1/2 only has about 4 to 6 weeks before they need to start working on practice tests with a looming test date.  A child who is 3 1/2 is going to need about 3 to 6 months. The actual age of the child is the age the parent decides to do something about test prep, so it varies.

We worked through 2 or 3 quantitative problems involving numbers of at least 5.  The child counted on her fingers while she did the work, which is normal.  I explained to the parent that one of the purposes of these problems is to get the child to see the number and not count the number.  This is visual number sense.  Then the next step is for the child to see both 5 and 6 at the same time.  Finally, the child will see 5 and 6 and a difference of 1 all at the same time.  A child of exactly 4 might need a few passes through the problems to get to this point.  (Never let your child mark the book if you are not convinced they know the answer.  Redo the questions in a week or two.)  Of course, this isn't enough to get to a high bar, so when SSCC gets the child to this level, the next problem is going to have 5 and 6 and a difference of 1, but the problem will have something more going on.  After all of this, bring on the practice test because we're ready to take on the test, or at least a practice test..

This discussion with the parent lasted about 10 minutes while the child sat with the book patiently waiting.

I turned back to the child for another problem. The little girl just stared at it before answering.  There were no fingers.  Apparently, she was listening to the parent conversation.  She didn't zoom through the problem because visual number sense needs a bit of time to burn into the brain, but she didn't use her fingers.  I'm willing to bet she counted in her brain.

How cool is that?  From fingers to counting mentally in 15 minutes.  I feel like the Albus Dumbledoor of academic coaches.  I'm going back next week to see how many other skills we can cover in one sitting.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Fast Track To GAT

I've put together an efficient program for gifted and talented test prep that I'm going to use when I start working with underprivileged minorities in Chicago.  By "efficient" I mean both the most efficient use of time and the most efficient use of money, since I'm going to have to buy these books.

I'm going to start prep right before age 4, maybe a week or two, with Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking combined with Shape Size Color Count.  I'll keep Building Thinking Skills Level 1 for grades 2 and 3 if needed to supplement these two.  We won't need BTS Primary because Shape Size Color Count puts us right about in the middle of the nonverbal section of grades 2 and 3, and the content is from Pre K Phonics is overkill for the verbal side of the test by design.  I'll need a single practice test for COGAT to cover before the test with each child.  We'll probably take the OLSAT, but I like COGAT practice tests better because they're harder.

This is going to take about 6 to 9 months.  I've got about 3 months to enroll candidates for a test date of February 2018.

I'm not worried about the test.   I think at this point I could get a Parakeet past the 98.8% cutoff score. The point of this research is to figure out how to get the parents in the game.  No one has studied this aspect of education in any depth even though it's the single biggest factor, maybe the only factor. Until Chicago addresses early childhood education among minorities by looking closely at the parents, we're stuck with poverty and violence.  Early childhood education is a well kept secret in the United States.  It's call teaching cognitive skills.  In the US, we test for cognitive skills but do almost nothing to teach them.

To go from slightly above average to gifted takes a lot of work on the part of the parent.  After going through this process, you can look back and see enjoyable parent-child time, once you get past the crying and the 'I can't do this'.  To get from below average is going to be even harder on the parent. I'm probably going to be dealing with single parents.

I think of fast track as a short cut.  It means the shortest possible path using both money and time wisely.  'Short cut' and 'fast track' mean this:

I chose a Pre-K test leading to a Kindergarten program because it's much easier than a Kindergarten test leading to a 1st grade program.   There's 1 less year to catch up.  The mountain gets bigger after Kindergarten.  As a bonus, if the Pre-K test doesn't go well, there's an extra year to get the job done.

So that's the plan.  Challenging and doable.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Word Board Isn't a Board

I've got quite a few emails asking about the Word Board.  It is usually just use a poster with sticky notes or the refrigerator.  You can do something more deluxe if you want because it's very important. I just used the wall or a poster board with sticky notes or the fridge.  When we were catching up in school, half the house was a Word Board.

The reason I call it Board is because of all of the other connotations of Board which you will experience as time goes by, for example, putting your child on the spot to see what words come down today.

I'm horribly amused to see the results of searching for 'pre-k phonics' on Amazon.  Here's what it looks like.

There you have it, graduate level phonics with a fractal that I designed on the cover, next to ACB's with cute little animals on the cover, and Learn To Read with a happy engaged child and a thrilled mom.  It would never occur to me to put a picture like that on the cover, because the mom probably has a PhD in Literature. She's not in my market.  She's the competition.  I need a mom who has absolutely no idea how she's going to prepare her 3 or 4 year old for the COGAT or OLSAT, not to mention an accelerated reading program in a gifted and talented program.  I'm working on making the cover child friendly, but I'm not changing the ambitious goals.

I started coaching a neighbor who is 5 years 1 month old, with both phonics and with Shape Size Color Count now that it's finally out.  It's so much different than working with a child who just turned 4.  Things go much faster.  I suppose 5 is a normal age to start this level of academic work, especially if the big test is at age 6.  Her brother is a friend of my son's, and they go to the same school.

I walked around the neighborhood today visiting locations where I could find African American parents with 3 year old's.  I found 20 African American parents in the library.  Most of them had graduate degrees.  I'm not kidding.  I am not going to address problems in Chicago helping African American parents who have graduate degrees.  My neighborhood has changed a lot in the last 10 years.

Next week I'm going to walk North into Rodgers Park and try again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Keys To The Death Star

When my 2nd child and I sat down to begin test prep in Pre-K, he was totally baffled by practice test questions.  Apparently, he didn't have the skills that these tests were measuring.  The test given in Pre-K was the OLSAT, and the test given in K and after is the COGAT.  The COGAT practice tests are decent as a last step in preparation, but the OLSAT practice tests are useless. The skill set is very similar but the format varies between tests.  We were facing both tests because our program starts in 1st grade, but we needed to look at the Kindergarten programs as a back up plan.

Nothing on the market for a child in the vicinity of the 4th birthday is even remotely close to cognitive skills training for quantitative and visual perception skills at the level of a passing score on the test, especially for a child starting from level zero.   What we really needed was non-verbal phonics.  Why is there a phonics course for reading that imparts a powerful verbal skill set but we just teach our 4 year olds to count and expect quantitative and visual skills to magically fall out of the sky?

Problem solved.  The rest is GAT history:

Half of this book looks a little like the OLSAT, only harder, as in a few problems a day instead of 20, and half of this book looks like a warm up for the COGAT.   It's not just that the underlying skill set for both tests is very similar.  Proper reparation for the OLSAT provides a foundation in the vocabulary needed for the COGAT,  and preparation for the COGAT provides a degree of challenge that the OLSAT frankly lacks.  You may wonder why I used the term "vocabulary" in the context of math phonics.   The most important skill in math is to see the characteristics of the problem at hand, and the starting point of seeing for a child in the range of 4 years old is to name these characteristics.  If a child needs to score above 95% for GAT entry, the vocabulary can't stop at basic shapes.

The investment continued to pay off.   Combined with the phonics, Shape Size Color Count was the secret behind scores on the above 98%.   We would have been at 99% on the OLSAT, but when the test proctor asked my son if he wanted to change his answer on the last verbal question because it was wrong, a diabolical device that we didn't anticipate, he responded "No" as is in "No, I want to get the heck out of here as soon as possible" and he ended up with a 98.4%, which, believe it or not, is below the cutoff in Chicago.  The COGAT went much better.

But that was just the beginning.  In past articles, I've labelled this as the Plans To The Death Star, as in how to prepare your little rebel for taking on the big test, but it's turned out to be the Keys To The Death Star, as in moving in and wreaking havoc in the galaxy. The first graduate of Shape Size Color Count has had track record of amazing ever since.  He sees problems with visual skills that I never learned.  Some day phonics for math might be as popular as phonics for reading, but for now, because of this book, we're enjoying a permanent advantage, a head start followed by a gap that continues to grow.

It turns out that phonics for math offers more than just a solid foundation   After this course, we had a lot of fun with Kindergarten math, but it was mainly practicing holding a pencil and reading directions.  The verbal skills came from Pre-K phonics, but as you know, it wasn't regular phonics but Test Prep Phonics.  The material in SSCC, step-by-step starting at square one, which is actually one square, put us about half way through 2nd and 3rd thinking skills books for non-verbal content.

On the day of the COGAT, when parents were telling their children "Just do your best", and "Have fun with the puzzles", I turned to my little rebel and said "You need to crush this test.  If you get below 98.8%, you can't go to school with your brother."

The last thing I said was "Tell me what you're going to say when you get stuck."  He replied, "Shape Size Color Count".

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Chicago GAT Project

About 18 months ago, in one of my articles I suggested where my work was heading.   I'm now ready to begin.  See if you can guess.

For six years, I've been researching how to teach academic skills and cognitive skills with the end goal of a strong academic performer who can blow away entrance exams and eventually go on auto pilot.   With the last round of school testing and the release of report cards for this grading period, it looks like I'm there.  The 7th grade project will continue, but it's more of a covert operation.

The curriculum page lists plenty of material that I found on the market, and the 4 books I created to close the two big gaps for gifted success.   The last one is now on the publisher's website and will be available on Amazon next week.  Gifted preparation involves learning the vital thinking and academic skills that are measured by cognitive skills tests, as well as articulation skills that the test doesn't measure but provide a distinct advantage in school.  If you've ever seen one of the Test Prep Math books, you discovered that it's about teaching grit as well.

I really enjoy coaching average parents and their average children, but I don't play to take coaching average children into GAT programs beyond my research and the testing of material.

If you're still in the dark, the key word is average.

The official goal of The Chicago Project is to eliminate poverty and violence among the African American community in Chicago.  With the recent release of Pre-K Phonics and Shape Size Color Count, I'm ready for battle.

Here's the plan.  I'm going to find 3 African American parents on the low end of socio-economic measures, co-opt them into my research study, and put their children into one of the gifted programs that starts in Kindergarten.  If it goes well, I can do 6.  That's the limit of the pilot.

The project will focus on getting the parents to manage the schedule and library related activities during phonics, and to teach them the proper way to coach math, e.g., teach cognitive skills under the guise of math.  For decades, hundreds of millions of dollars of government funding of education has been wasted on teaching materials while the biggest problem that needs to be solved is the parent.

The first hurdle I face is finding candidates.  Chicago has section 8 housing in every neighborhood including mine, and I live near a couple of minority schools that I would describe as sub par.  I live a block away from the third biggest library in Chicago, but frequent walks through the children's section confirmed that I have to look elsewhere.  I may have to bribe a social worker to turn over a list.

Once found, signing them up should be easy.   If a fairy godfather knocked on your door to announce your little price was about to become the king, you would probably jump at the chance.

Next, I've got the material.  The Pre-K Phonics book raises the culture of the home from average to gifted.  I specifically designed the book to make up for the fact that I spent the critical years of language development working on projects with my children.  Lots of doing, less talking than optimal.  I expect the homes in this research project to need a similar lift. Shape Size Color Count is phonics for quantitative and visual math.  It's a game changer.  It put my child at about the half way point of the 2nd and 3rd grade BTS book at age 4 and he's never hit below 99% since.  The cost of color printing is high, but everyone one who buys this book to cheat their way into a GAT program will be funding the Chicago Project.

I'm a bit worried because my books are not easy.  I expect to have to spend at least 6 weeks on Executive Function skills and learning how to do a single question that takes 20 minutes.

The next hurdle is the transitory nature of the target group.  I need them to be in the vicinity from about age 3.5, when selection and planning begins, 3.75 when the training begins, through about 4.5 at test time.  Ideally they are still here starting in 2nd grade for the 18 month refresher course needed to solidify the gifts and talents of the child.  My biggest fear is losing a child to a move.

The big unknown is the ability of the parent to step up to the plate.  I need 1 hour of reading a night and 1 weekly trip to the library.  I also need a Word Board and lots of conversation happening.  Is this going to be possible in the face of all of the other issues they face?

I'm not sure how the approach to academics will go on the part of the parent.  Hopefully, I'm working with a clean slate, so that when I state that a workbook lesson should take about 20 minutes and I don't expect the child to actually be able to do any of it for a month, I'll get 20 minutes and lots of patience.

I have no idea what is going to happen with these last three issues, and this is the topic of research. The deal is this: I'll put their child into one of the best schools in the country if they are willing to give it a try.  By the way, Chicago has different cutoffs for the GAT test scores for each of the 4 socio-economic tiers in the city.  40% of the seats in the GAT programs are at large.  I'm shooting for one of the at large seats, with a cutoff of about 99%, because taking a seat from the low tier doesn't seem right.

I'm considering publishing a research paper.  Maybe this will point the academic community in the right direction.  Poverty and violence end with education.   The MacArthur Foundation asked for someone to step up for $100 million of funding to fix Chicago.  I'll think about this over the next two years.  It's going to cost about $250 per parent for books, at least 30 hours for basic coaching, and the overhead organizing it all, upgrading the libraries and working with the school.  The only insurmountable challenge is an education industry that prefers testing children for skills instead of teaching them.  I might need $100 million to fix that.