Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Teach to the Test Crisis

Ever since my son and I walked into a gifted and talented program, 2 weeks into the school year, and I found out that the kids could read at a level 2 or 3 years ahead (we were reading board books and they were reading The Hobbit), we've been in crisis mode, as in Red Alert, all hands on deck, raise the shields, prepare to go to hyperspace.

I became obsessed with what other parents had been doing that resulted in their children being light years ahead.   The first thing that I found was the intelligence is a myth, and the second thing that I found was that these parents were doing a lot.  Other than stepping up reading, my objective wasn't to copy the parents.   The really really super bright and advanced kids have really parents extreme in some way that I couldn't replicate.  I just don't have the resources to create a galactic fleet of battleships, but maybe I could find a way to blow up the Death Star.

If you haven't guessed already, we saw Star Wars Rogue One last night.  As I watched the movie, I thought this is the story of my children and their school.  You're pretty happy when you find the plans to the Death Star and send your little one in a tie fighter to blow up the COGAT, but the Empire keeps building more Death Stars every few years and the whole thing repeats itself.

One of our most important secret weapons is Teach To The Test.   The Test is measuring skills, and if you find out what they are and impart these skills to your children, then they do way better in school in all of their subjects and on annual standardized tests.   This is especially true for the skills behind the COGAT, the NNAT, the OLSAT, the Raven, and if you really want to get crazy, the WISC and intelligence tests as well.

I usually just focus on math.  All of the skills are in reading, that's true, especially the process of learning to read, but when you're a rebel, it's much faster and much easier to develop these skills in math.  It requires less resources.   The Pre-K Phonics book focuses on these skills, but after that, it's all math.

I've covered the skills up to 5th grade in articles during the last year.   These are the core skills and the foundation for the higher order skills that appear in middle school.  A parent crazy enough to subject their child to Test Prep Math or Revenge of Test Prep Math is going to hammer away at these skills relentlessly.   The math in the books is fairly easy, just a lot of adding and subtracting with some multiplication and division thrown in, but the only way to survive a single problem is to use The Skills.

My other secret weapon is that you don't learn any skills at all doing lots of easy problems at the child's level.  The skills appear when you do one single ridiculously hard problem that takes a lot of time.  This is also built into the math workbooks.  5 medium problems also work, although not quite as well, but when you're doing test prep and the test is in a month, you've got to cover more ground. This approach doesn't turn around a math grade from a C to an A overnight.   It takes about 3 months in most situations, but as a bonus, both grades and test score go to hyperspace after that.

For middle school, the bar is raised.  The skills at this age can roughly be divided into a list of advance problem solving techniques for math, and a list of reading comprehension skills.

On Christmas Eve, I sat down to coach middle school students and announced that we were going to work on these two sets of skills.  I listed the skills for reading and provided a few examples of how these work on the SAT.  My son informed he knows this list because his teacher makes them go through this exact same exercise weekly.  When we started working on math, I explained the 5 problem solving skills (see my article on Poyla and the math link on the right), and again my son informed me that they already know this list and math class every Monday is a single hard problem where the kids have to apply the skills.

Suddenly it dawned on me what parents were complaining about at that parent meeting I described last week when they complained that the teacher was teaching to the test.  Red Alert, our secret Rebel base is being attacked by the Empire!

Fortunately, I have more secret weapons in my rebel arsenal.   The world's greatest math teacher (I've upgraded her from the best middle school math teacher in the country because of what I just wrote above) is no match for the World's Greatest Academic Coach, because she has 30 kids to deal with and I have one.  Plus, she would get fired for yelling at a student and looking disgusted when he reads a question from an SAT book and announces that he doesn't understand the question.  "Of course you don't understand the question.  It's for a junior in high school.  Now start reading the question to me one word at a time or I'll bring your 8 year old brother over here to show you how to do it."

The 8 year old is the Darth Vader of academics, not only because he has a hot temper and no patience, but because he has a fleet of planet destroying galactic battleships.  He didn't just attack the Death Star, he moved in and made the laser beam stronger.  The phonics book was half of his training at age 4.  I'm finishing up the other half, after sitting on it for 5 years.  I'll unveil it in a few weeks. It's the plans to the Death Star.

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