Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Kindergarten Challenge

Here's a challenge I received from a reader. 

The 1st grade child scores 99% on the NNAT one year than falls to 80% the next.  Reading and math scores also fall.  All scores have to be near the 100% mark in three months for GAT entry.

The child is going to be home schooled.  I'm very excited about this.  It only takes a few hours a day to give the child 8 hours of education, and the child can sleep in every day which is critical for intense instruction.  This leaves about 50 minutes for test prep and 2 hours for art, crafts and projects every day and 3 hours of reading.  I consider science to fall under crafts and projects at this age.  Think sorting rocks, vinegar and baking soda.  First grade will take about 4 months under these conditions, and second grade another 4 months.

The parent needs to find out the times of day when math works.  Is math first thing in the morning, or is it morning painting and Read To?  Test prep needs 2 times, one in early, late or mid morning, and one sometime in the afternoon.

There are a few reasons why the scores fell year-over-year.  I could write a whole article just on that topic. For now, the things I care about are a) anything score 50% is not a bad starting point, b) three months of prep is better than eight weeks, and c) we need to slow down the pace of learning, probably by about 90% and ramp up the complexity of the material.  If the child did not do well on the test because the parent teaching methods and attitude are a total disaster (been there) then we need to fix this, which will be a separate article.

Yes, I said slow down the pace of learning.  This is probably the biggest factor in GAT preparation.  My pace when I coach is 1 problem in 20 to 30 minutes (depending on the child's age) and 5 or 6 problems when the child works alone.  We're just as slow in math, and I've managed to get two kids into high school math at age 9 or 10 on 5 problems a day.  Not that they're especially talented in math.

The premise of "slow" is slightly counter intuitive under a deadline.  Here's the explanation.  When you build an academic culture where a little work goes a long way, you're using the skills measured by the GAT tests, skills that are also critical to standardized tests like the MAP.  Unless it's a timed test, but we can account for that after the learning takes place.  When you have a culture where problems are easy, correct answers are expected, and worksheets are long and fast, the child is going to totally bomb on a test like the COGAT and NNAT.

I would make time for Vocabulary Workshop because it's so much fun and children learn how to eliminate answer choices as they quickly progress toward harder material.  I would have a Word Board for something because it's where adult discussions take place and where the child has to stand up and deliver.  Or fail.  There's always the next day.

For math and test prep, let's teach this child so that he or she gets to 99%.  I've been going back through my articles thinking about my teaching methods.  I don't think articles are clear on my preferred approach:
1.  Give the child super advanced material and let them flounder.  Eventually they will pick up the skills to work with super hard advanced material.
2.  Give them advanced material and let them do all the work before you don't grade it.  (No typo, read that again.)
3.  Walk through the super hard material together, one question at a time after they do it.
4.  Do it with them, one question at a time, mostly just asking questions.
5.  Give them simple material on a super advanced topic so that they can learn one step at a time on their own.
6.  Give them last year's workbook (last year may actually be next year depending on the circumstances) so that they can catch up on material they need to know in order to keep up with 1 to 3 above.  They can do this on their own, or with some starter help.
7.  Lay 5 skittles on the table, one of each color, and provide a skittle each time your child gets a correct answer.
8.  Give them a skittle just for making an attempt.
9.  Do the problems yourself while they watch.

Lately I've been doing 4b, which is to break down a problem entirely and a class or rules, but I didn't do this in first grade.  I did say Shape Size Color Count over and over when they were stuck to remind them not to look at a problem for 15 seconds and announce that they were stuck, because that's called 'The Beginning of the Work'. 

Which approach do you use?  I used them all.

I used a variety of material, not because of the Spaghetti approach, but because sampling is the best way to find out what works, a child needs to learn from all materials, and a child needs to learn all learning styles and accommodate all teaching styles.  It's not a matter of what the child likes best (aka the easiest), but what works best on which day to meet our goals.

Finally, both cognitive kills tests and the upper levels of standardized tests in math and reading require deep, careful thinking over an extended period of time, mistrust of answers, tackling something unknown, surprising, new, with subtle, hidden complexity.  How to you train a child to have these skills?  #1 through #5 on the list above.  It works the best with 1 super hard long 25 minute mind numbing problem, but in practice, this is a total disaster with crying and yelling, so I've settled on 5 medium really hard problems in 25 minutes.   After that, brain exhausted.

I almost forgot.  We also did music starting in Kindergarten.  I gave my child an electric piano and the Piano Adventure series, and no help what so ever except for tempo. 

Remind yourself that the child will be sitting in some advanced class someday without your help.  The child will be taking a test without your help.  This is what you are preparing them for.   So many people get hung up on them having to know math because they have to get above 95% on the math section.  It's so much easier to train them to think and then math comes really easily after that.

What would this take?  I think a few reading comp books, about 10 to 15 each, maybe 3 math workbooks, judicious use of the web, 2 vocab workshop books (current followed by current  + 1 for starters), maybe one reading comp book, but lots of reading of all kinds.  I would go to Michaels and buy lots of cheap crafts and things like that bead thing, concentrating and creativity activities, painting, and then whatever test prep books you want. 

Origami.  Almost forgot.  Origami is really good for visual spacial and fun, and the test we're challenged with in this case is the NNAT after all.  You can create all sorts of animals.  Do not let you're child do an activity that requires you to do it.  It's kind of the opposite of test prep and how I do math. 

Totally excited about this.  The thing I got out of this time period is a) I learned how not to be impatient or expect anything or care about correct answers and b) I ended up with a much closer relationship with my children and some credibility with them.  a) led to b).  a) also leads to a boatload of learning in a short period of time.


  1. I'm the one experiencing this "challenge" with my kid, and thank you so much for this! I love your unconventional approach.
    I have a question mention 50 min. of test prep, 2 hrs of art, and 3 hrs of reading, yet you mention 1st grade will be 4 months and 2nd grade another 4 months. In order for my child to be at 99% on the MAP in reading & math, wouldn't she need to be equal to 1 or 2 grades above in those subjects? Because I unfortunately don't have 4 months.

  2. I've religiously followed your blog and was a GAT parent through and through. My little tester bombed OLSAT and NNAT :( We read hours a day and the she can read Magic Treehouse books. We did one Test Prep Math challenge each night. So frustrating that we won't qualify for GAT! So exhausted but challenged to try again for 1st grade. Where do we start? [Looks like I learned more than my child did during this process]

    1. My Test Prep Math is designed to start in second grade. As for reading, you will note that I've stated in the past that uber strong reading is a liability on the K tests. Plus the NNAT is devoid of math, and the OLSAT is a watered down more verbal version of the COGAT. So you prepared your child for the wrong test and the wrong year, and possibly over prepared your child. The poor kid was decomposing matrix ambiguities and the test just wanted 1 + 1 = 2.

      On the other hand, there is a whole set of soft skills, executive skills, and over maturity skills to deal with, especially a reader. This is almost a twice gifted scenario. My braniac reader didn't pass the test the first try as well (because it required 99.8% and he refused to answer the last question so he could get out of the room). The good news is that you will finally succeed, and your child will be permanently ahead of the class for the rest of their life. The bad news is that you have to appeal or your child will be really bored next year. I hope you're not in chicago or NY where there is no appeal process, but if I read your question correctly, your child will be in K next year, and school before 4th grade is a writeoff anyway. Please let me know a) what the appeal process is and b) what are the tests for 1st grade and we'll go from there.