Chapter 3 - The Test

Copyright 2014 - me

The Gifted and Talented Test

There is a difference between aptitude tests and cognitive ability tests.  An aptitude test tests what a child has learned, and a cognitive abilities test tests their ability to learn.   This simple fact will play a crucial role in the next year of your child's test prepping life.  If I told you nothing more about how to prepare for the test, you are already hold the key to success.

What is the difference between a child you scores 99% of a math aptitude test and reads 2 grade levels ahead but scores in the 50th percentile on a cognitive abilities test, and a child who knows no math, cannot read, but who scores in the 99.6% on a cognitive ability test?  The latter child will probably do much better in school in the long term.

It is possible to teach a child to read, and teach them multiplication at a very young age without teaching the child how to learn, or letting them learn how to learn.  My whole chapter on a solid year of test prep (Chapter 6, coming soon) is going to be meaningless without this insight.  Chapter 4 and 5 are about reading and math, and if you apply this lesson, even without test prep, you are already much of the way there.

The Test Objectives

The purpose of the GAT tests are to find out which kids will excel in school, usually in the 95 percentile or higher.  In Chicago, it's closer to 99.9%.

How can a cognitive abilities test predict learning?  Think about what makes for a really great student who can go way ahead.
  • She listens to, concentrate on, and follow instructions.
  • She can explore and understand the problem, identifying subtitles and apparent contradictions.
  • She can see something new and work through an example.
  • She can identify rules and follow them.
  • She can see how the problem differs from the example, and then apply the example to this new situation.
  • If she is stuck on the answer set because her expectations were incorrect, she can go back and readjust (thus the legendary 'you got it wrong' on the CPS Kindergarten exam).
  • She can sort through complexity, break it up, simplify it.
  • She can make sense of chaos.
  • Can she jump to conclusions that follow logically
  • She can stick with it while totally confused and frustrated until she has success
  • And more!
I have a page on this blog from the very beginning where I lay out my initial research project on this topic. At that time I knew that reasoning was a high predictor of academic success.  After working through 1000's of test questions (alas, none from the actual test), I can see that reasoning can be broken down further and I put some of that in the bullets above.

There is a high correlation between aptitude and cognitive skills (sometimes called study skills by me), because kids who have study skills also happen to be the kids who do a lot of studying.  It is a legitimate method of learning how to learn by spending time with academic pursuits.  Not always, but much of the time.

The test makers uncover gifted learners (meaning kids gifted with learning skills) by separating the tests from normal academic material.  At a young age, this also means using pictures and forms in place of words.

A Special Mention For Vocabulary

Vocabulary on its own is a high predictor of academic success and goes hand in hand with general cognitive skill represented by the bulleted list above.  It would be hard, if not impossible, to create a skills test with predictive power without vocabulary.

I've mentioned vocabulary before.  New words opens up new mental doors for the child, gives them new concepts to explore, and increases brain power.  Words = brain power.  This has been shown to be true independently of the tests (even though they are heavily weighted toward vocabulary even on the nonverbal portion as I will demonstrate later in this completely free online book.)

Vocabulary deserves special mention because even though you are teaching your child how to learn, you still need to work on their vocabulary to get past the test.  Reading is the best way I know of how to do this at young ages.  Not the child reading.  A child leaning how to read has many cognitive benefits, but the books he read's probably won't have SAT words like 'viscus' and 'mortified' on them, nor the kind of conceptual interesting double meaning words that will show up on this test.

The test makers are careful to choose words that the child can figure out through other devices, like the process of elimination or clever guessing.  The only reason why I mention this now is because my son stopped when he got stuck on a word, therefore keeping us out of a Kindergarten GAT program, and I needed an excuse to bring this up in bitterness.  He told me this, and he told me the word.   Curse you, OLSAT.   Ever since then he's been working on a First or Second grade vocabulary workbook.   If you check my blog for April 2013, you'll see me very excited about this.  By the time he got to the 1st Grade test, he was already through  the 2nd grade vocab book.  Generally speaking, he doesn't know most of the words and just muddles through.  Stuck was not an option any more.

The bottom line is that in addition to learning how to learn, you have to cover vocabulary out of necessity regardless.

Reading Drives Nonverbal Success
The learning process that the child goes through when reading tends to teach all of the skills bulleted above. At this time in their lives, children don't know enough to be frustrated and quit.  They are happy to be reading with the parent.  But children are going through all of the steps to gaining advanced cognitive skills (see below).

How to Apply The Key To GAT Success

You will probably spend at least 9 months a year teaching your child reading and math.  I use the term "math" broadly to me everything except for reading.  Test prep season will last 4 to 6 months, although you'll be lucky to get enough material for a solid 3 months.  Therefore, during the year, approach reading and math in a new and different way and turn it into good test prep.

Take math, a big bucket of problem solving.  When you teach your child counting, shapes, adding, subtracting, and maybe even multiplication at a young age, you may be teaching them nothing about learning. The child may master arithmetic and appear to be smart.  When he is older and covers adding in a solid 2nd Grade Math text, there are elements of thinking involved in addition to adding, but really young kids usually don't pick learn these skills.  They simply learn how to add.

To study math in a way consistent with the goal of beating the test, the child needs 3 things.  First, the curriculum must have a lot more than arithmetic.  Maybe the material is too advanced for your child by 6 to 12 months and requires extra thinking for that reason alone.  Secondly, the parent will give the child plenty of time to figure it out before jumping in and guiding the child.  This is really hard to do, especially for first time parents.  Thirdly, the child will need to figure out a way to solve a problem that is beyond their skill.  If the child can count up to solve 14 + 14 = ?, they are not developing advanced cognitive skills.  If the same child can break it down to 10 + 10 + 4 + 4, and already has a device for 4 + 4, the child is practicing for the test.  14 + 14 = ? is a one step problem.  10 + 10 + 4 + 4 is a multi-step problem.  Have you noticed that most of the test questions are multi-step?

Let the child learn.   Give her material that she will get wrong half of the time.  Let her take leaps into the deep end and struggle with material for weeks or months before getting it.

When choosing test prep literature, read through the list of skills above and ensure that their workbooks force them to exercise each of the skill.  Depending on the child, you might get tears. You might get a bunch of wrong answers.  This is where learning is happening.  A child does not learn by doing anything that they have mastered.

How I Teach This

My definition of a smart child is a child that exercises the skills listed above to zing through tests and crush academic material.  Since intelligence is an un-scientific theoretical concept that cannot be observed or proven, I've discarded it as useless.  The skills that so-called intelligent people exercise while doing post-doc work at Berkley in the Physics department are something I can use.

This is how to teach these to a child of any age.

Phase #1 Work Hard
The first step is to work hard.  Smart people read a lot, study a lot, do academic type games, are geeks, and study and read a lot.  Being smart takes a lot of time.

Therefore, the starting point is a lot of hard work, and less going outside and having any kind of fun.

This phase is a personality changer and a character builder.  It involves 100% of the parents time at the table or the child will walk away.  For younger children, this period involves lots of crying and whining.   It can take 6 to 12 weeks, depending on progress toward the next phase.

The misconception about hard work is that it involves sitting down, concentrating, and doing some unpleasant academic work.  This is what the child is experiencing, and they think it is hard work.  That is why this phase is so important and why I am willing to sit at the table for 2 or 3 hours a night (with a 10 year old - a 4 year old can only handle about 15 or 20 minutes).  The real hard work is much worse than this, and if the child doesn't go through some character building pain, they may not be strong enough to handle what follows.

To get out of the phase, you may have to ease up on the work and start acting so proud of your child for how hard they work, until they are somewhat pleased with their efforts, even though you know the other shoe is about to drop.

Phase #2 Really Hard Work
Once the child can sit still because you have crushed the life out of them and he has given up any hope of going outside and playing like a normal child for 20 minutes a day, or more, things get really hard.

I like to start this phase with material that is 2 years advanced.  This can't be reading, because I don't want my child to hate reading, but it can be math, critical thinking, or test prep.

This level of challenge is going to require the child to exercise or acquire the cognitive skills listed above.  The child is going to be wrong a lot, not understand the material, be stuck on each problem, and in general be frustrated.   That is twice as hard as hard work.

The child has to spend more time trying to understand the question, ask about unfamiliar vocabulary, read examples many times, and try out different approaches to solving the problem.   The child may have to learn how to guess or select from a list of choices none of which seem correct.  In other words, the child has to learn how to think.

The most important thing that a child can learn from this experience is that he can do it.   At the end of the workbook nightmare, the child will see a super hard workbook that he knew he could not do, and it will be done.   He will see a workbook with 100% mistakes in the beginning slowly turn into mainly correct answers.  And for the rest of his life, he won't say "I can't do it.  It's too hard".

This is not a fun phase either for the parent, but by about 6 months into it, the child should be working on his own.

A bright child likes to zip through a problem by glancing at the question, expecting to know the answer, and if nothing else, just guess and look at the parent.  With material 2 levels up, I expect a sophisticated approach to problem solving.  Read through the question thoroughly.  Explain what is being asked. Determine how to solve it.  Are their feasible options?  Try them all and see which one works.  Prove that the selected answer is correct.  The reaction I get to this approach from older kids is that I took a 2 minute problem and turned it into a 20 minute problem with all of the extra work.

Phase #3 Work Smart

This is where I stopped writing.  Check back in a week or so because this is the key point.


There are some really great parents who explore the wonder of the world with their child and never see a workbook.  These parents ask insightful questions, and guide their children through thought provoking responses when the child asks questions. None of these parents contributed to my research.

My Experience

While my Chapter on A Gifted Mathemetician isn't bad, I didn't learn the "learn to learn" before I wrote it, and I now have to incorporate this concept into the chapter.  But even without showing Child #1 how to navigate math problems and outthink them, which is 50% of the math battle, I at least forced my kid to do the work on his own, only helping when he gave up.

With child #2, we did 1st Grade math in preschool, and then did no math whatsoever starting in about September while we went hard core boot camp test prep.  He didn't see a number or an addition problem for about 6 months.  At the conclusion of test prep season, I handed him Every Day Math Grade 2, and he did it on his own.  That's when the light bulb went off.  In trying to cheat an exam that tests study skills, I taught my son (or he taught himself) study skills, and then going back to academic materials, he was a Math Rock Star.   At least for the time being.

Aside from bragging about my awesomeness as an academic coach, I'm making a very critical point here - test prep teaches study skills.   Test prep teaches learning skills.   I wish schools would just teach these skills directly to all children instead of testing for them on a secret test and then segregating the kids who know the secret password.  It's unethical.

Other Options

I have a definite strategy for test taking that motivates my approach.  Let's review this in the context of viable strategies.

Strategy 1: The Learning Environment

Some parents choose to forego test prep altogether and instead foster a home environment that promotes the joy and wonder of learning.   This sounds great for the first child, if you have any idea what that means.  I think it means that the parent spends all of their time with the child.  By child number two, the reality of the daily schedule will crush this approach.

Every person who has promoted and succeeded with this method, that I know, is a teacher.

Strategy 2: The Talker

Talk to you kids incessantly.  Build their vocabulary and thinking skills.  Let the rest take care of itself.

I suppose going into the test with a solid edge in vocabulary and winging the rest is a good idea.  I'm just not skilled at it.  What if both parents work?   Can you count on the nanny or after care for this?   Not for me.

Strategy 3:  Hire a Consultant

I'm not against this approach.   The problem is that in my Tier in Chicago, the area only has 1 school accepting GAT kids to first grade and in my Tier, there are only 14 or 15 slots available.   There are thousands of kids applying.  All of the consultants target my tier, and if there are a few 100 kids going to these consultants, my chances are not good enough if I do the same thing.

Strategy 4:  The Math Guy

This is my strategy.  Give your child a distinct advantage in the math portion of the test (not "real" math, of course, but test math), then let the kid wing the rest.

There is a big overlap between vocabulary and math on the test.   Each of these broach sections (or types of skills) covers at least a 2/3 of the test on its own.  Both types of training (math and vocab) come with test taking strategies that are nearly identical.

Next Steps

Take a look at the chapters on reading and math that follow.   This was 75% of our year, so it should be well spent.  In Chapter 6, I'm going to walk through the whole year including test prep.  Even during test prep season there are days when we can only get through 6 test prep problems, but we still read for a long time and I might be able to work in a page of math or math-like material.  I won't give up on the weekend vocab work either.  This 'learn-to-learn' concept, to be successful, needs to be applied broadly and not just on test prep material because the child is not capable of doing that much thinking in one day.

Then you can dig into Chapter 6, which I'm writing as I go.


  1. Thank you for being a voice of reason.

    1. Here I am 18 months later and I've got so much more to say. I'm glad I wrote this down or I would have forgotten all of the pain I went through just getting my kids to sit still and quit whining about having to do work.

  2. Hi there

    This is awesome. My 7 first grader (to second) has sat in the test for two attempts now and with no avail. Of course, she was "clustered" into the GT program because she was recommended by her kindergarten teacher. But this year they kicked her out of hte cluster because they had way too many identified children. Here I am trying to get as much information as possible to help my second grader take the GAT before starting third grade. I am at my wits end and know not how to get her to that level in 4 months. I cant find the material anywhere to fill the 4 months. I have the workbooks and yes, they are way too easy and I don't think that it will help. What else can I do? I am slowly reading your blog in my lunch hour but by the time I finish your blog it may be too late!

    1. I think it's ridiculous that my 5 year old blew through 4-6th grade test prep material. For now, to get started, I recommend 3rd or even 4th grade reading comprehension test prep for one set of skills and vocabulary workshop for another. That leaves a big gap which I will address in a few weeks. Stay posted. This will be big. Big.