Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Skill #2 For Test Prep

A while back, I outlined skill #1 for test prep, which is "Read the Question".  I've had a hard time articulating Skill #2, but I've been practicing with my Parent Forum and I think I'm ready.  Brace yourself.

Skill #2 : Get Problems Wrong

The general consensus on learning is to keep kids in the learning zone where they have some competency and can apply it to a stretch problem.  The teacher provides scaffolding, the child learns, and everyone is always happy.

When we do test prep, academic work, or other important life activities, I'm generally looking for my kids to screw up and get things wrong.  I choose material with this in mind.  This is a really counter intuitive parenting and academic coaching but it is, in the end, the way to go.  Everyone is not always happy.

When I do test prep, I'm much more interested in material that is way, way, way over their heads and mistakes and wrong answers are the norm.   There were two things that motivated me.  First, it seems way more efficient to cut out all of the stuff they already know and just concentrate on the stuff they don't know.  Secondly, when I studied for the GRE about 100 years ago, I consistently got 50% or more wrong on practice tests leading up to the big event and managed to get way over 99% on the test.  This was back in the day when there were 193,234 vocabulary words on the test.

It turns out that there is very solid logic behind this approach as it applies to cognitive ability tests like the COGAT.  These tests aren't looking for children trained at getting lots of problems correct.  These tests are designed to find thinkers who can come up with an action plan when things aren't going well, who can navigate the unknown.  The tests are designed to lead the child into an answer set that doesn't have the answer the kid is looking for, or doesn't have one clear answer.  As far as I can tell, there is very little content in a test prep book that is anything close to the actual test.

When your child is used to getting things wrong, good things happen:
  1. The child is not bothered by failure.
  2. The child learns to go back to the question and read it again.
  3. The child learns to just plod through options one at a time to find the right answer.
  4. The child learns to mistrust questions, to be suspicious and skeptical of answer sets.
  5. The child learns a bunch of survival skills that aren't learned on an arithmetic worksheet.
These are the qualities of a good inventory, scientist, or researcher.  These are the qualities of a good student.  This is the stuff of which grit is made of.  These are the qualities that make for a high test score.

There are downsides to this approach.  First, it takes a few months for both the child and the parent to be deconditioned of the normal approach of spoon feeding the kid concepts and then expect perfection on lots of routine, easy, boring problems.  This can be a time for whining, complaining, arguing, and sometimes shouting on the part of the parent, not to mention the child.

The second downside is that when you have a kid who is unafraid to work ahead 5 or 6 grades, normal academic work is really a downer and bad grades on easy tests might result.  I'm personally hoping that by middle school or high school the material rises to meet the skill set.  Fortunately, 4th grade math scores don't show up on a college application.  If anyone has an answer to this problem, please share.

If your child consistently scores below 50% on material or workbooks that I recommend for test prep, now you know why.   This is exactly why I recommend the material.


  1. Totally agree with this your approach.

  2. Totally agree to your approach. Have been trying to get over some of the downsides to it, as you've mentioned here:

    1. Child answers only 90% of the easy ones as school work correctly because by the 10th one he has lost interest. The same approach gets instilled in all schoolwork and leads to a lot of frustration for the parent because for GAT he will be tested in school and I hope he will not just transpose these 'acquired skills' for this test.

    2. The child's teacher says "So, you've stopped teaching the wayyyy above grade level material". This leaves you wondering if the child's performance in school is not that spectacular to have lead to this comment or is he so bored and distracted that the teacher thinks he has lost interest in academics.

    3. The smart kid starts to look for recognition for his abilities through his peers, usually through 'not so smart' ones, because all the rest are focused on learning and the teacher is interested in the middle band. Eventually he starts picking up some wrong habits, distractions and friends.

    You are left wondering if all that work is worth it. Rather leave the child to be a mediocre till 'common sense' dawns on the child as he gets older.

    Just a vent after a recent incident in school today. We have been riding this rough wave in the hope to see the 'glimmer of light' by Third grade. Until then, we shall continue to work on schooling, de-schooling, behavior and 'common sense'.

  3. By the way, on the first week of school, my kids came home extremely exhausted therefore we're not having any meaningful test prep or math. Anybody having any luck or advice?

    1. Expect this 40% of the time. Use Saturday and Sunday's. You'll be lucky to get 2 nights during the school week for test prep. Once the kid adjusts to the new schedule you'll get a few more days during the week. This is a problem I know very well.

  4. After living overseas for a few years and moving back to the U.S., we started the first week of public elementary school in one of the top counties in the U.S. Very disappointed with what they've done so far, some classes watch TV/DVD daily and my kids came home extremely bored with their reading and math time. Didn't realize how important getting into GAT until now and getting into GAT is a do or die situation at this point.

  5. That is exactly the 'culture shock' we went through. We came back from Sweden (the likes of Finland quality of education) and after that to see this under the name of public education was shocking. Wait till you go through the kind of exposure to 'consumerism' and unwanted distractions the kids get exposed to in class which are endorsed and 'officially' implemented by the schooling system.
    I am hinging on GAT as if my life depends on it, otherwise it will be Homeschooling.
    Ethics, character building and true learning is at its lowest best. My son came from 'sharing, caring' to 'it's mine'. It was such a rude awakening.

  6. I recently enrolled my son in the Stanford gifted and talented math/language arts program for 2nd grade. He is currently in 1st grade. Have you looked at this program and if so what is your opinion on it? He's having difficulty in math although he has already finished the 1st grade math curriculum. I am wondering if I should go back to 1st grade math and start there.

    1. Tell me more. Is this on site or elearning? Stanford and U. Penn are the 2 hottest areas for research right now. I'm obligated to try or buy anything readers suggest. Right now, the only material I'm familiar with, from Stanford, is middle school and high school.

    2. It is online. I have given the website for the program that he is enrolled in below .

  7. My son is in 4th grade and new to the school and has less than 4 months until testing starts (cogat level 12, itsb level 11 and district tests all which contribute to the GAT matrix). I have purchased the level 12 mercer cogat practice tests and Building Thinking Skills books but he's taking a long time to get through Building Thinking Skills. Should I jump straight into the practice tests and should I have purchased the next level up? What would be the best plan over the next four months? We don't have any experience in these tests.

    1. The practice test isn't for teaching useful skills, but it helps with other things like preventing errors. You can do one now and one before the test. 4 months is plenty of time. I would strongly recommend doing 6th grade reading comprehension questions from a good test prep book like the ITBS or SAT. I'm going to do an article on this topic in a few weeks. If he's taking too long to go through BTS, that means you're getting your money's worth. Take advantage of Saturday and Sunday's when he's more rested.

    2. Thank you. I appreciate your feedback and really appreciate this blog which has provided me with a wealth of information.

    3. Any recommendation for ITBS or SAT books? I am strugging with choices I see in Amazon.