Saturday, October 27, 2018

The State of Test Prep

Thanks to Google's diabolical news algorithm, my personal news feed includes every article on education, testing, GAT programs, SAT test prep, and any content that includes the words gifted or talented. I accidentally clicked on an article about Nebraska football and was immediately inundated with articles from,, and other sites. So I read about education and the Big Red.

All of the news is bad, and about 80% of articles are inaccurate, misleading, or full of incomplete or faulty logic, even from authors who bill themselves as experienced educators in GT programs. Being a parent who values education makes you Public Enemy Number One. If you want a good education for your child, you are the problem.

The reason you want your child in a gifted program is that the non-gifted program is 2 years behind the rest of the world and teaches your child to not think by subjecting him to spoon feeding and mind numbing worksheets. We can do mind numbing worksheets at home, thank you, if we want to. I know how to read to my child from a math book while he stares into space.

In high density urban environments, education has additional challenges. I'm surrounded by great schools that are 1/3 ELL, 1/3 zero reading at home, and 1/3 really bright kids. Mixed classrooms have been proven superior for gifted children, but only if the teach has the training, support, curriculum, and time to teach 3 levels of material. None of them do, except in well crafted studies. A gifted program is not an option - it is a minimum requirement for pre-college education. In a rural environment where I came from, I'd say the situation is more dire.

Basic parenting

Before I discovered 'optional' programs, I decided that my kids should read a lot and be exposed to a wide variety of what our world has to offer. On a daily basis, they should be subjected to material that is challenging and just above their cognitive grasp, aka something to make them think, aka math. According to current thinking on gifted education, this makes me wealthy and privileged. Our public librarian should have been confused why I visited weekly instead of sending my butler.

After I discovered gifted education, we changed gears a bit. Reading is good education, but 2 years of advanced vocabulary in one gulp is gifted. We stopped doing 'math', and started doing 'math you will not see for 2 more years.'

More advanced parenting

Somewhere along the way, I stopped trying get my child to learn math. I shifted to getting my child to teach themselves math. This dramatic shift in pedagogy came about because of the step I outline below, but it had a dramatic shift on the pace and the nature of the work.

If you want your child to shine on double digit addition, for example, you teach the mechanics of double digit addition, the child practices double digit addition a lot, probably starting with single digit addition and working their way up step by step until their speed and accuracy is there. People are amazed at how someone so young is so fast and accurate at double digit addition and you are very proud.

But if you take a step up to teaching your child to teach themselves math, you have to walk into what I call the Education Disaster Zone. When your child gets the hang of 4 + 5, probably counting on their fingers, you hit them with 23 + 57. They ask 'What is 23? Where is the arithmetic operator that is supposed to be between the 2 and the 3?' They can say 'arithmetic operator' because you have been pummeling them with vocabulary for the last 3 or 4 months. Instead of 20 problem at 30 seconds per problem, they are getting half way through one problem (23 + 57) in 20 minutes, barely getting any of it. As soon as they get 23 + 57, it's on to the next topic.

The child may still be counting on their fingers. 23 fingers is a problem, but whatever. In the meantime, the child just spent 6 months trying to develop the skills needed to handle what I call 'thinking work'. Not memorization (which comes anyway thanks to vocabulary), not speed, not accuracy, but advanced thinking and problem solving skills. 6 to 12 months later, they will emerge with a formidable tool set.

More effective parenting

Thanks to the COGAT, we had to take a 4 month hiatus from math and focus on non-verbal content. It turns out that this material is raw cognitive thinking training. The test prep approach, in retrospect, is muchg more effective and efficient thinking training when combined with supplementary material.

After each test, we came back to math, and it was a lot easier, even with my insane program. No math for 4 months and the child jumps back in, ahead of where they were, working more quickly and with less help. Thanks COGAT. Why don't schools take this approach? Probably because they are stuck with Common Core.

Step up to coaching

The biggest challenge in this approach is getting your child to stay in the game when he's getting trounced by the material. If your child is 'naturally gifted', because you did all of the things you were supposed to do before the age of 3, none of which I did, you may be wondering what problem I'm trying to solve.

The problem is giving your child the education that he deserves, the education that all children deserve but very few will get because, according to my news feed, the whole country is turning against gifted education. Fine - this will make it easier to get into college for DIY's like me who put a bit of effort into At Home Schooling after school each day.


  1. My daughter took the cogat this year and got into our district's challenge program. Our districtis not rankedvery high, but I have heard that their gifted program produces great results on standardized tests. Now couple of months into the program my daughter is hating it. It's just busy work without any real challenges. Could you guide me to resources that can benefit a child who thoroughly hates arithmetic drills and spelling tests. I would also be grateful if you could guide me to good books on what gifted education should consist of. Are there any schools that you know of that are doing it right? My 1st grader is not gifted in the truest sense. She has above average Intelligence and is hard working. I am looking for case studies and success stories and dont know where tostart. Thank you for your blogs- they have helped me immensely.

    1. Sorry for the late reply. I replied last week but I don't see it here. There is a lot going on in your comment so you may have to email me directly for experienced parent-to-parent advice. I've been there. Arithmetic drills - you should do the minimum or once a week, or not at all. This is why I wrote Test Prep Math, but it's not suitable for 1st grade. I think we skipped math in 1st grade. The spelling tests are really really important and painful, so we did these as a family every night until the child learns to memorize words quickly. Review phonics during this process. We had 40 3rd grade spelling+vocabulary words each week in 1st grade. It took a lot of our time. Gifted education consists of really great books combined with history supplements and related art projects in 1st - 3rd grade. Plus lots of science reading like Magic School Bus. It can really be a fun time. Zero pressure. You can be bad at arithmetic and turn out gifted; I believe being bad at arithmetic is a prerequisite for real giftedness. The standardized scores fall until 5th or 6th grade if giftedness is done properly with a long term goal. I've got plenty of case studies, and they all involve a strong memory and lots of vocabulary that comes from good reading (and spelling tests). For many kids, like mine, who are late to gifted training, 1st grade is really hard.

    2. Thank you for the detailed reply. Is there an email I'd I could write to you to? Thanks!

    3. You can email my gmail account. It's getyourchildintogat plus the gmail part.

  2. Dear Norwood,
    Thank you for all your posts. They were very helpful! Having benefited from your blog, I feel obligated to share my perspective. I am the product of Asian education system, value education as much as a you and most of my circle is naturally gifted and mostly PhDs. So, I believe I can give you some important insights.
    1) Yes, rest of the world (Asians especially) is 2 years ahead in math, they can crunch numbers and do advanced math. But they fail miserably in the application of mathematics part. It is never taught to them.
    2) Even with their advanced intellect, most of them will not reach their potential due to the lack of people skills. Please focus on team work and managing conflict with peers. Destination Imagination is a good program that can help with building these skills.
    3) A little bit of rote learning / memorization is good. It frees up your mind to do more advanced things. Find a balance here.
    4) Don't discount the benefits of learning musical instrument and another language . The time spent is well worth it. The extra connections your brain will form will complement the connections formed by your "insane" program.
    5) Gifted kids tend to be successful, because they are gifted. Just being in gifted program doesn't guarantee success. In line with Malcolm Gladwells "Outliers", any kid will benefit from the additional rigor. But if all that a gifted program does is teaching 2 years ahead and the kid has to forgo other important extracurricular activities just to keep up with the program, then all you are achieving is a guaranteed college admission due to the strength of academic portion of the application at the cost of forgoing other necessary skills that are equally important to get ahead in career. I am not downplaying the importance of gifted curriculum and it's benefits, I am asking not to get caught up with the asian mindset and ignore non-academic skills.
    Just my 2 cents. I hate to give anyone unnecessary advice. But I feel I am doing disservice if don't share something that can benefit you.

    1. Thanks for your insight. It's great. If you're kids are under the age of 19, please read or at least skim Excellent Sheep and let me know your thoughts.

  3. I read Excellent Sheep. The author has some valid points. I agree that credentialism and over achievement take a toll on (some) kids and humanities are important (they build soul). However, the book tells a "single story". The reality is lot more complicated, many more stories. I don't agree that 4 year liberal arts education is the answer. I would take the knowledge/lesson from the book and be more vigilant when it comes to my kids, however it doesn't change my plan. I will still strive to get my kids in to ivy league or atleast tier 1.
    It is the job of the parent and to an extent teachers (during grade school years) to instill morals and values. College only provides the tools /skills and it's up to the individual person to decide how to use these. The notion that college is the time for self discovery is only partially correct. Self discovery is a lifelong process, like peeling an onion there are many many layers to self discovery. So if a person does not discover "self" during college, the college is not to blame, they are just on a different timeline.

    Anyone capable of doing a sober analysis will find many things to disagree in the book. The one important takeaway from this book is: break away from the heard mentality, take a step back and think for yourself what you want from college. Just don't mindlessly do what everyone else is doing.