Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review of Gifted Practice Tests

In this article, I'm going to review books on the market for the COGAT and OLSAT, with special mention for the NNAT.

The practice test is the very last step in test prep, unless you are thinking ahead, in which case you can do one 6 months before the test and the in the last few weeks leading up to the test.

A practice test is designed to familiarize the child with the format and rules of the test.  Research shows that familiarity is good for about 4 points.  With cutoff scores in many school districts at 98% and above, those are 4 important points.  I've found that really bright children can make up their own creative rules and associations during the test; I use a practice test correct this problem and potentially avert disaster.

A practice test is not a good way to increase cognitive skills, especially if you speed through it a few weeks before the test.  To teach cognitive skills to your children, see the basic curriculum on the Gifted and Talented Test Prep Curriculum page.  I don't use practice tests to build cognitive and academic skills.

There are a few subtle differences between these tests but I'm generally happy with all of them for their limited but important role.   In case you were wondering, I have no relationship with any publisher and don't get paid, and if you check the links in this blog, they are just regular old links.

Starting with the COGAT...

One of the strongest publishers on the market is Smart Cookie.   There material is slightly more creative than other test prep books that have been on the market for the last 10 years.  For grades K-2, the a great all around general purpose COGAT test prep book on the market in my opinion is their Form 7, 2 practice tests in one for $34.  Best is of course relative.  Each publisher has their differences and in diagnosing a student and their test strategy I might choose a different book for different puproses.  I also like their 3rd and 4th Grade NNAT book, again 2 tests in one.  The NNAT is a much easier test, much easier to prepare for.  It's not uncommon for Kindergartner's to work with 4th grade material (as long as it's non-verbal) because many cognitive skill are independent of age.

I had high expectations for the K-2 practice test from Big Brain Books in the "Crush The CogAT Series" but it's comparatively easy and the format isn't close enough to the test.  I'm going to do some more experimentation with this book because the price is less than $17.  The book covers K through 1, and I think it would be a good starter book (the one you use 6 months before the test) for at least K, especially at the price point.

Origin Publications has a K and 1st Grade test that is much more challenging.  Their number puzzle section (train questions) have subtraction, which is great.  This $17 book contends that it helps the child become familiar with the format and content of the test, but I think the authors are trying a little harder than that, and that is a good thing.  I'm going to start using this one.  I think it has a slight advantage.

Gateway Gifted Resources produces a test prep book for first grade that is suitable for use in a Kindergarten classroom.   The book is priced reasonably at $20 for a color book and contains the types of characters you would find in a Kindergarten text book that is not a gifted program.  I would use a book like this as early as Pre K, and my child would get most of the questions wrong, and it would take a long time, and thus it would provide some value.  Just because your child is 5 and practice test material is generally easy doesn't mean there is more value using a book for a 7 year old.  But in the case of Gateway Gifted Resources, there is value in doing their books at a very early age for the 3 verbal sections.  I like the fact that their graphics vary.  It's a small but nice touch.

The original COGAT practice test is from Mercer.  It's also the most expensive at $40.  This book is designed to look just like the test.  If you want to do a full dress rehearsal to deal with a shy child, this is a good book to use.

On now on to the OLSAT...

For many years, there was only one OLSAT test prep book on the market and it looked just like the OLSAT test and I hated it.   Way too easy.  An easy test does not give your child an experience like the test and might in fact prepare them to fail.  In 2014, 4Kids published an OLSAT Practice Test that I hate less and might use as a quick workbook before we start test prep, except that it cost $26.

For OLSAT, I prefer COGAT practice tests because both the books and the actual COGAT are harder than the OLSAT.  Practicing for the OLSAT is more about practice answering questions and I have a completely different approach.

And the NNAT...
I don't spend nearly enough time worried about the NNAT as I should.  There are 2 reasons.  Preparing for the COGAT is much closely aligned with the broad academic skill set you want your child to have, and I can't say that about the NNAT.  Secondly, the Smart Cookie NNAT book for 3rd and 4th grade is my favorite test prep book for any age.  In my opinion, test prep should be nothing more than taking time out to improve your child's cognitive and academic skills, and then blowing away the test is an after thought.  I feel pretty strongly that test prep for the NNAT should be 1 official looking test like Mercer and then heads down thinking and problem solving work, and finally back to the NNAT practice test like Smart Cookie's for the last month.

Now some parting advice...

First, if 100% of your test prep regime is just a practice test, go slowly and carefully.   Don't do more than a section a day, and I recommend 1/2 of each section first, and then go back and do the other 1/2 on the second pass.  Since the problems get harder in each section, 3 passes of 1/2, 1/4, and 1/4 might be in order if you have time.  If you are getting this book overnight because the test is in 2 days, all of these passes will be in a 24 hour period of insanity.

While the child is going through a practice test, scores of 50% or less are common.  This is not unusual.  Keep in mind you don't want to spend 2 weeks conveying your impatience and high expectations on your child.  That is not the goal.  The goal is cleaning up their confusion and reinforcing best practices going into the test.  Some of the test prep books provide some guidance on this, especially Origin Publications.

The core cognitive skill set is somewhat age independent.  There are a few questions in the kindergarten books that I found really challenging.  This means that some of the same material at the K and 1st grade level can be found in a slightly more advanced version for 2nd or 4th grade.  But the complexity, working memory demands, and tediousness of the questions will increase.

The amazon reviews for these books are not helpful at all.  5 stars from someone who bought a single practice test and their child is going to pass anyway because they've been reading 7 books a day from birth doesn't apply to the rest of us. Even worse, I've seen 1 and 2 star reviews because the questions are unclear and sloppy and poorly worded. These are the books I want to get for my own children because the last thing I want going into a really challenging thinking test is to spoon feed my kids clear problems expertly drawn.   The exception is Bright Minds publishing which appears to have been created by a non-english speaking author and which I didn't review above; I like the thought of my kids having to fix grammar to do a question or fix a question with wrong answers but I wouldn't trust other parents to be as excited as I am about the extra work, especially with the test approaching.

And what to do if your child doesn't pass...

There's been a huge shift in home education in the last 10 years.  Many come late to the game, especially with the first child.  For years schools have been measuring cognitive skills without bothering to teach them.  Then a few parents like Jessie Wise and home schoolers discovered that you can teach your child much more - way more, much earlier, and produce more capable students.  The gifted test prep industry started a rebellion against selecting a few lucky students into the gifted program, but trying to get a few extra points on the test is just the beginning.

So if things don't go well after one or two practice tests, you've got some more work to do, and that is the main focus of

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Secrets of Smart Kids

If you bothered to read my long winded post from last Saturday (Teaching Genius), you'll see a few lists of characteristics or skills that smart kids have.  As a parent, Job One is teaching these skills and reinforcing these characteristics.

I'm really excited about the combined list.  It's a game changer.

I've seen lists of GAT kids before, but it wasn't until recently that I broke it down into the underlying skills and considered all of these as teachable.

I am immediately changing gears on my one hour a day of summer home schooling.

The 9 year old is great at calculating.   If he see's 97 x 4, he'll just multiply.  This is a big mistake, because he's missing out on the skill of rethinking how to solve the problem - a skill that is the focus of math at higher levels.   So I'm having him skip direct calculation problems from now on, and only do the ones like 97 x 4, which can be more easily solved as 100 x 4 = 3 x 4.   I grade him on whether or not he skipped the right problems, and his creativity on the rest.

For the new guy, at age 10, I'm breaking him of the habit of gravitating toward easy work that he's already mastered, of looking for approval every time he does a problem, of not bothering to remember what I just taught him.  This is slow going and involves a lot of frustration and crying.  If he works hard and concentrates, I'm happy and he feels loved.  Other than that, I'm pretty unhappy and he feels unloved.  Per the textbook, growing up he was constantly rewarded for being "smart" and his whole world view was consequently screwed up (or so I theorize).  I remember the other 2 going through something like this, but it took a lot less time at earlier ages.  I should start a Smart Kid Boot Camp and just put the whole South Side through it.

The 5 year old just went through 2 years of test prep where I pretty much did everything right most of the time and is not lacking any skills - yet.  Plus his father is the World's Most Awesome Academic Coach.  But every 3 or 4 years the bar on skills is raised and kids have to step it up, so I have to be diligent.

Once you as a parent get over the hurdles and practice skills building, you might be able to hand your kid a book 3 or 4 years ahead of grade and leave them alone.  When you return, they worked very quickly to make some sense of it.  It's amazing.  Not that they understand any of it, but they try.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Teaching Genius

I'm going to try one more time to prove that there is no relationship between genetics and intelligence.  I've tried this on parent forums and have had little luck.  This is probably one of the more important things for parents to grasp in order to do a good job as a parent.

The concept of intelligence based on genes is very primitive.  By primitive, I mean it's the same thing as equating severe weather with an angry weather god.  Both have the exact same scientific basis.  I get a very similar reaction from each group when I point this out, although the cave people who think intelligence is genetic don't throw rocks as large as the ones thrown by the cave people who believe in weather gods.

Here goes.

Intelligence is a Theoretical Concept
Intelligence cannot be observed, it cannot be measured, and no one can prove that it actually exists. In everything you've ever thought or read about "intelligence", you can substitute the words "pixie dust" and stand on the same solid scientific foundation.

The intelligence theory comes from the field of psychology, a field that has given the world lots of other unproven crap that goes straight from idea to practice with no scientific vetting in between.   This is called the Freudian method, and is the antithesis of the scientific method.  It is widely documented that no 2 psychologists agree on the definition of intelligence.  This is not surprising because no one can see it, measure it, or prove it exists.

I hope that this is the end of the intelligence discussion, but it usually isn't.

Intelligence Tests Don't Measure Intelligence
Intelligence test makers assemble questions and then chooses those questions that result in a normal distribution, with gender parity.  Why do they chose questions that are gender neutral and result in a normal distribution?   Who proved that intelligence is normally distributed?  Who proved that these questions are correlated with intelligence?   No one, since no one can observe or measure intelligence, because it's a theoretical concept.

Intelligence tests are highly correlated with academic performance.  This should surprise no one because intelligence tests are designed to be very academic in nature, because this is the way they are made.   The very first IQ test was designed to measure academic progress.  There are no questions on who won the last world series.  As a result, these tests are good predictors of academic achievement.

Intelligence test results are stable over time.  This should surprise no one because the question content is something a 15 year old can grasp and most people don't really change the amount of effort they make on a daily basis to improve their cognitive skills after they graduate from high school.  A students continue to work hard and be A students, B students continue to coast, and C students discover bars.  If the questions on the test involved decision making and dating choices, scores would go up until midlife then plummet, and then we would all think that intelligence is earned by making stupid decisions.

But it turns out that intelligence test results are anything but stable.  The test is updated every 10 years to keep up with the moving target.  If you took the test in 1900, and you have an average IQ, you would have scored at least 130 and been certified a genius.  Also, there's the unknown reason why 15% of 15 year olds jump 15 points in IQ for no reason.  

Cognitive Skills Are Not Theoretical
If we throw out intelligence and replace it with a list of cognitive skills that make people better or worse at answering questions on intelligence tests, doing math homework, succeeding in college, and making decisions about dating, a much clearer picture of "smart" emerges.  It is actionable and understandable, and we can put our little statues of the weather gods in the closet.

The only way I've ever gotten people to let go of their superstitions about intelligence is to replace it with these lists.

Group 1 Skills
Here are a list of skills that make a child really great at tests, math, and college.   This is the level 1 version (little kids).  As we go up to level 20, the descriptions change, skills are added, but it's the same basic concept.  I'm going to use the term "he" for this, but for kids, girls are way smarter.
  1. Sits Still, Listens and Pays Attention  I'm not going to explain this one.
  2. Work Before Fun  He finishes his question, test prep, math worksheet, drawing or puzzle even though he wants to eat a Popsicle and play on the iPad.  Probably because you've told him he can't eat a Popsicle and play on the iPad until he finishes.   
  3. Loves Challenges  He really wants to learn how to read because it's some challenging mystical magical powerful tool that will get him to level 2 so he can beat his older brother.
  4. Hang In There  Even though he doesn't quiet understand what the heck division is, he's willing to plod along for hours or days until he gets it.  
  5. Blows Off Frustration  When he totally bombs a question or a page, he brushes it off and proceeds to the next one, instead of having an emotional breakdown and quitting.  Will work harder next time.
  6. Remembers Stuff  When he learns something new, he thinks 'I better remember that, it might be useful.'  Kids who lack this skill are frustrating to teach.  With older kids who lack this skill, it appears that they don't care.
  7. Tries Again  If he is thwarted by a hard problem, he tries again and again to get it correct.  If you've ever seen a 2 year old with a basketball standing under the regulation size basket trying over and over again to make a shot, you've looking at a future genius.
  8. Stinks At Sports  For whatever reason, the kid finds himself doing more academic type stuff (reading, art, music, math), than non academic stuff (playing with the hose, riding a bike, kickball).  It basically means that a kid is not going to do very well on the vocabulary section of an intelligence test if he hasn't put in the time to learn vocabulary words.
  9. Is Motivated  Again, for whatever reason, this kids wants to do academic stuff, finish the worksheet, crush the intelligence test.  I blame the parents or older brothers and sisters.
This is the base of the pyramid.  Kids with these skills tend to conquer academic challenges through attrition.   This doesn't mean that they are good at them.  It means that they will continue to work on academics until they've built the the next group of skills.

By the way, you can actually see and measure these skills.  You can also teach these (if you want to go through hell for 6 weeks) to kids who don't have them.  It really doesn't matter where these skills come from because they work regardless, but I'll discuss inheritance below.

Group 2 Skills
Once the kid is in the game, he can develop all sorts of higher level skills that allows him to tear through math and blow away an intelligence test.  This is not a complete list because I'm still compiling it, and there's overlap with Group 1 skills.
  1. Vocabulary  He knows a lot of words because he reads a lot or is around a mom who talks and talks and talks.
  2. Word Usage   He knows shades of meaning and clever use of words because he reads a lot.
  3. Cheating   He's too lazy at math to actually do the problem correctly, so he cheats.  For example, instead of multiplying 4 x .97, he multiples 4 x 1 and subtracts 4 x .3.   Really little kids are good at this which is why you shouldn't make them memorize arithmetic facts.  This single skill might be a summary of 3 of the most important skills for intelligence tests.
  4. Sees The Problem   Does your child take the time to listen (or read) the problem?  Some kids miss key elements, like the + 3 in this COGAT problem:   12 - 5 = ___ + 3.  There's an easy way and a hard way for kids to learn this skill.  The more advanced form of this skill is Takes Time to Understand the Problem.  I spend a lot of time talking about this elsewhere.
  5. Knows What's Important  In history class, he knows what to write down because it will be on the test, as opposed to the professor just rambling on.  In word problems, discards trivia.
  6. Tries Different Approaches  By this, I don't just mean that a child gets it wrong twice and tries the 3rd time.  I mean the child is bored and just makes up new solution methods to see if they work because he's sick of doing test prep worksheets.
  7. Remembers The Last Thing He Learned and Applies It  Have you ever tried to teach a kid Algebra, and you show him 10 examples of y = 5x + 2, and when it's his turn, and he gets y = 4x + 3, he looks at it like he's never seen anything like it before?  In this case, I will bring Beer to the tutoring session and swear until he learns this skill.   
  8. Wonders If He Got The Right Answer  A kid without this skill will be perfectly happy with 4 / 2 = 200.  Lack of this skill not only thwarts performance, it thwarts learning.
These are the first two skill groups on the learning pyramid, and the skills that are generally associated with intelligence tests.  I've got a few more levels from a post 2 months ago that are relevant, but this is good enough for the next discussion.

The Genetics Question
Are these skills related to genetics?  Well, they are in 2 important ways.

First, a genius needs about 5% to 10% of the average human brain to be a genius (which is all we use).  Since most of us are born with the average human brain, we have 10 to 20 times the gray matter needed to be geniuses, and this is totally evolutionary genetics.  No argument from me.

This doesn't apply to sports.  The minimum weight requirement for NFL linemen is 300 pounds, and it can't be all chub.  Genetically, my kids will never get there.

Secondly, parents who have learned the skills above tend to pass them on to their children one way or another, and parents lacking these skills will unfortunately pass on their fear of math.

Take "Work Before Fun" for example.  A parent who doesn't have this cannot stand the whining and complaining ("parent work") of a kid who has to do a test prep worksheet page before he gets to use the iPad and will shut up for 30 minutes ("parent fun").  This quickly wears down the parent who caves in and gives up, thus passing on the lack of this skill to her child.  The parent with this skill in uber portions lets the child play with the iPad for 5 minutes after a week of hard core visual spacial matrix worksheets.  The child will begrudgingly do the work, change their expectations, and adopt "Work Before Fun", at least for the time being.

Also, left brain PhD in literature parents sit around with mountains of books and their kid has nothing to do but read for 4 hours a day and turns into a guess what?

Dads who are over the top in sports put their 3 kids in 5 different baseball leagues at the same time, and the kids end up spending each week driving around or standing next to second base.  This is an experiment in progress right now with my neighbors.   I'm the control group (math, reading and piano daily or don't even use the term "iPad" in a sentence.)

Of course, the only thing genetic about any of these skills is the fact that we evolved brains.

Can These Skills Be Taught
There are some really clever studies that measure and teach these skills.  There are fewer studies that teach these skills because it takes time and money.

The problem with research on these skills is that the Psychology + Early Childhood Development + Education fields are a friggin train wreck of morons.   Just when the latest 100% unsupported intelligence theory has run its course and proven to be useless, another one comes along and otherwise sane researchers will drop what they are doing and start writing text books based on the unproven theory and destroy another generation of students.

Teachers generally see these skills develop in some students, time permitting.  Coaches and music teachers are more likely to witness these skills develop in each child.

It's great to see a little brainiac use these skills in conversation or on a test, but it is far more interesting to me to see a kid who completely lacks one or more skill.   First, how the heck did that happen?  I have a list of probably cause, but it's usually the parents.  Secondly, how to get the child to develop the skill?  Lacking any sort of patience, I use the brute force method: This is the skill I want you to learn and you're going to sit here doing this hard boring work until you do.  I prefer the brute force method because it helps develop several other skills for no extra cost.  I'll have to write more on this topic because it's my current line of research.

For the Sake of the Children
I assume that intelligence is not genetic because intelligence doesn't exist.   I further assume that I can teach my kids the intellectual skills they need to go as far as they want because I've done it repeatedly and it seems to work.

Compare my behavior and actions as a parent to a parent who thinks intelligence is genetic, even partially.   They know in their misguided heart that their child has limits and don't think to find or teach cognitive skills.

Our parenting styles will differ.

Our kids will turn out differently.