The 4-8 Week Test Prep Crash Course

I get quite a few emails from parents who are a few months from the test and didn't know it existed.  I get emails from parents who are 2 or 3 weeks away from the test and have done nothing.

Here is the story of my 8 week crash course.  I don't recommend you do this, but I don't recommend that you don't do this either.  It was very stressful.   It turns out that I accidentally did everything right.  Subsequently, we faced catching up in a program that my child was completely unprepared for, and I was determined not to be in this situation with the next one.  As a direct result of these 3 factors, the accident that worked, the need to catch up, determination to avoid the same mistake, as well as the fact that there was almost no guidance available to parents, not to mention my lack of sanity, I wouldn't have started the research program behind this website.

Here's what I had to go on at the time:
  • These tests would be really hard.
  • I didn't know what was on these tests.
  • There are no published academic papers describing what a test question looks like.
  • I have no idea what to do with the search results from Amazon and I don't have time to try all these books.
It would have been helpful to have a practice test.  That would have been good for 4 or 5 more points. But I didn't know these existed.  If I did know, I probably would have just used practice tests and lost 30 points by not doing what I did right.   Subsequently, I tried the standard books and websites that are COGAT test prep, but almost all of these lack the key element that put us in a seat in the GAT program.

A Shot In the Dark
I figured that there was no way to impact vocabulary.  The tests are supposed to be non-verbal anyway, so we just worked on thinking skills that are 'mathy', as in not school math or arithmetic, but involve some new technical materiel.  Plus, I had no material to teach 100 vocabulary words in the next 8 weeks and didn't know which words to choose anyway.

I grabbed everything I could find that could be explained quickly and then leave the child stumped while trying to work through hard questions.  I remember creating sections on Roman Numerals, Series, and Venn Diagrams.  I didn't elaborate on Venn Diagrams, but a quick introduction and a bunch of questions.  Once my child got the hang of it, I moved on to something else and didn't look back.

I created my own questions, like find the one that doesn't belong or fill in the missing shape.  The problem with these questions were that they were so hastily created that half of them were wrong. For example, the way I created the diagram, there was no answer, or there were 3 answers, or some other screw up.

I created 20 questions, and sat down with the expectation that we would get through these 20 questions in the next few minutes.  It didn't work out that way.  It was more like 1 or 2 questions in 20 minutes.

We did 2nd and 3rd grade reading comprehension workbooks, or, as it turned out, reading lack of comprehension workbooks.  Since he couldn't read, I did the reading and he did the pointing.  Who's dumb idea was that?  I think it was mine.  It turns out that in the way that a practice test helps with the format, the reading lack of comprehension exercise helps with the actual test experience.

I'm not sure the shock of some goofy advanced concept or having to spend 20 minutes trying to figure out the answer to a question that doesn't have an answer did the trick.  I think both of these combined got the job done.  There was some crying in both situations, because my third mistake was expecting my child to answer the question quickly, on the first try.  After a few weeks of this and my child triumphantly reporting that my dumb question was wrong, we got past the crying and I learned the key to coaching without tears.

Why It Worked
I went down 5 or 6 different paths of research in the next few years, and they all led back to the unexpected conclusion that my mistakes (minus the crying) were correct all along.

Subsequently, I have found much more effective material, better aligned to the actual skills that the cognitive skills tests are measure.  The most important skills of all were present in the mess:  seeing something brand new and confusing, the patience to approach it with care, a determination to dig in and solve it, an expectation that the answer could be wrong (the child's, not the books's answer), and therefore it might require a few passes to figure it out.

If a child has this attitude, the test is doable.   If the child likes to hurry through a math worksheet, the test is impossible.

What You Need To Know
This section title sounds like the hard sell on news websites.  It is the hard sell.  You need to focus on the core learning skills, the grit related skills that I mentioned above in the Why It Worked section.   You can't do this if you think more is better.  You can't do this if you expect your child to actually know something or get a correct answer.  If your child sits through a 20 minute question and gets it wrong 5 times, lots of learning just took place.  If your child does a bunch of easy routine problems using known material, no learning takes place.

If you only have 4 weeks until the test, you use the time wisely, and focus on cognitive skills.  These are taught in the opposite way most people expect.   Of course, the last step in test preparation is a practice tests.  Comfort with the format is good for a few points, and you probably need those points. Practice tests are not good for learning.  Doing problems that look like practice tests only work if there is a thorough step-by-step design behind them, and there's only one book like this, for Pre K, which is recommended on my curriculum page, and one book after Pre K which is also recommended.

The difference between 2 years of test prep and 6 weeks of test prep is the difference between slowly introducing complexity and thinking over time, and hitting your child over the head each day with something new and painful.  Those 6 weeks will probably look like a disaster.  I prefer to use the term "boot camp". You don't have to get your child out of bed at 4 a.m. for a 20 mile hike in the rain, because he needs his sleep to perform mentally, but in effect you will be putting him through the same hell, a hell that involves a workbook and about 30 minutes of not getting it.  That is exactly what the test is going to try to do.

I work with other people's children, and always usually goes well.  For some reason, a child is more than happy to do ridiculously confusing work with a stranger.  With the parent, it's usually the opposite experience.  The parent carries baggage from expectations over the last few years.  I have no baggage.  I expect nothing.  Here's a problem you can't do, butter bean.  Let's see how many times you can get it wrong.  I actually say things like this with little boys.  With little girls, of which I have none of my own, I'm much more timid, but of course I'm giving you something you don't understand. Why would we waste time on things you already know?

I don't think parents can do that, but if you have only 6 weeks before the test, you have no choice.

What Happened Next
In a few weeks, I'm going to move these next 2 sections to a different chapter about surviving a GAT program, but it flows so well that I just kept typing.

For the next few years, we had to catch up in everything.   At age 6, the child was facing 3rd grade reading, accelerated math, 3rd grade language, spelling, grammar, and 3rd grade science.  Even worse, this was a "gifted and talented" program, which meant that the kids did a bunch of challenging projects instead of sitting there being taught the material.  How can you use the material on a project if it's not being taught?  It was a nightmare.

The standard, recommended approach seemed obvious.  We need to catch up in science?  Let's do more science.  It wasn't until 2 years later when my research culminated in the "aha" moment when I realized that I was really blowing it.  By September of 4th grade, it all came crashing down.  It wasn't just the 4th grade train wreck, it was more like 4th grade Armageddon.  

At this time, the younger brother was doing 100% cognitive skills based on recently discovered best practices and did not meet a workbook in any subject that he couldn't do quickly with little trouble. As he was going into the test for the 1st grade program, it looked like I should probably just have him skip a few grades.  Ding.  Light went off.  Of course!  If you just teach the academic and learning skills, known officially as cognitive skills, everything else falls into place.  It's not about more math or more science or more reading (except the part about reading, because it is about more reading), it's about learning skills first, second, third, and everything else takes care of itself.  It's not about test prep, its about cognitive skills prep, and the tests will take care of themselves.

For 2nd to 4th Grade
I've complained for years that there is very little cognitive skills prep material after 1st grade. From the previous section, you can see that this was my biggest problem.  This is why I didn't publish the work that addresses the Pre-K gap until recently.   

I specifically designed the Test Prep Math so that a 4th grader who is behind would need 20 minutes to figure out what the question was asking and 2 attempts to get the right answer.   If a child is doing well in math, I think November of 3rd grade is a good time to start this book, maybe October for a brainiac.  Test Prep Math Level 2 is an easier version that can be done staring in about October of 2nd grade for most kids.

I'm the only resource I can find anywhere that really has a good handle on the secret to gifted and talented.  I hope this changes some day so I can retire and go back to my day job.  The secret is that it's easily taught provided you do things in exactly the opposite way that everyone else thinks it should be done.  Test Prep Math is probably the opposite of what you would expect in a math book.   We tried advanced math, like number theory and competitive math, but it's boring if you don't happen to be fascinated by 2,000 digit numbers and prime theory.  To bring this book up to the challenge of the test, I took the working memory requirements from the cognitive skills tests, added 50% more load, and used this pattern in each question.   Cognitive skills tests also have this neat trick of an unexpected part of the equation, and then rearranging the equation, so I took these techniques a step further.  This makes it unlikely that the child will get the right answer on the first try.  Then, to get to 20 minutes on trying to figure out the question, I buried the math in a rather lengthy question that doesn't quite make any sense unless you are picking the question apart a little at a time and considering the options for the meaning of certain words.

Since we had so much ground to make up, not just my child but me as a parent, I started each book with easier questions to slowly work up to the challenging ones.  Level 2 is more gradual.  To compensate, I created Bonus Questions that make thinking a priority, and Super Bonus Questions that require imagination.  Some Super Bonus Questions don't have an answer.  These are the most fun of all.

I think the child will probably be above the 90th percentile after about question 55 or 60.  This may strike you as odd that so much improvement will take place doing a question a day and getting it wrong.   It used to strike me as odd.   At this point, I was wondering if the working memory and calculation skills had improved enough to take on systems of equations, maybe some logic operators, and a bit of abstraction?  That is Section 2.  The first question on Section 2 was a disaster, the next 10 resulted in slow progress.  I made both of my kids do all of Section 2, not just because they were the first editors, but because 3 years is a long time to go without math.  I call Section 2 the test buster. The hardest question on the test will not be as hard as Section 2.  Of course, the test has 100 questions in an hour, and Section 2 is 1 question a day (even though each lesson in section 2 has 6 problems - that equates to 6 days).

I see sales on Amazon of the Test Prep series.  The introduction is very long on how to get through this workbook. Staring with an average parent and becoming a GAT parent was not easy for me.  I can't help but think that these parents have no idea what they're in for with this material.

The Test Prep Math books were the only material that the older child did in 4th grade at home, despite what was on the report card. I learned that more of the same was getting us nowhere.   It wasn't just math scores that went up.   I had other problems, so the books address them, although not quite as thoroughly as cognitive skills.   If you've seen the book, it might strike you as a bit reading comprehension, especially Level 3.  That was intentional.   I wanted straight A's and across the board 99% on all tests.  I'm almost there.  Test Prep Math has nothing in it about turning in homework. That's the last gap to address.  I thought that making a math book dedicated to grit would work, but homework has an element of caring.

When I first started this blog, I had an average 3 year old, maybe a bit behind in walking and talking, as in barely walking and not talking at all, and an average 6 year old getting crushed by school.   The banner on this blog used to read "how can I get my slightly above average children to gifted and talented".   6 years later, I've got 4 books on the market that stand alone in a really tiny niche - the insane desperate parent niche - and I'm starting to think about the possibility of profoundly gifted.   The older child routinely sits for 4 to 5 hours at a time doing his work and has been tackling subjects he won't see until high school, which might have something to do with his nonchalance toward homework, He has a knack for getting SAT question correct without recognizing the syntax.  This is the only cognitive skills book left at his level.  The younger child benefited from lessons learned that took the form of the Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking book (an awful title that is an exact description) and Shape Size Color Count which is the only 'phonics' book for number sense and visual spacial skills, not to mention a cheaty way to learn cognitive skills.  He exhausted Test Prep math, and the only recourse I have is to give him 5th grade competitive math questions or he can't use the computer on the weekends.  

Not bad for 6 years and about 3,000 hours of research.  I've only got 2 more projects left.  First, we need straight A's and 99% on both the MAP and a COGAT like test to get into high school, because Chicago is ridiculous.  Then there's the Chicago Project to give back.  Maybe I'll leave this content buried at the bottom of my article on test prep where no one will read it.  Competition is going to be fierce in the next few years, and I'm a fierce competitor.



2 comments:

  1. Also, my daughter is in 3rd grade. Are there any other recommended resources, besides math, for such a short test prep window?

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    1. 4 months is not a short window. If you are in a district that allows you to schedule the test, schedule it as late as possible. There are lots of recommended resources depending on where your daughter is in reading. Building Thinking Skills for 4-6 grade, Vocabulary Workshop which I'm going to demonstrate next week in the context of test prep, certainly a practice test. I guess that's not such a long list after all.

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