Friday, January 27, 2017

The 3rd Grade Test Prep Stack

For years I've been bemoaning the dearth of test prep material after the 1st grade.  In the old days, sane school districts would start their accelerated or gifted program in the 4th grade, making grade 3 the big testing year.  Fourth grade is still a key entry point to GAT.  In Chicago, 4 seats are added to the 4th grade in many programs.

One of the boy scout dads in our 3rd grade den asked for some guidance, so I promised I would bring "some books" from my comprehensive library of COGAT prep material to a meeting. This dad is a doctor, probably an anesthesiologist; he is also one of the nicest people on the planet, and he happened to be on the boy scout camping trip when both of my sons got fishing hooks caught in their arm within 45 minutes of each other and is therefore also the family surgeon. To make it even worse, he became a foster parent and asked what he could do about getting into one of Chicago's top schools. By "make it worse", I mean "make me feel worse about how lousy I am as a human being compared to this guy."

Before going to boy scouts, I loaded my bag with books.

The 3rd grade boys spent the session carving soap with butter knives.  I think most of these kids could handle something much sharper, but the risk of one kid accidentally stabbing another is about 300%.  During a break in the action, Wonder Dad stopped by and I pulled out my stack of books to walk him through the curriculum.

I looked at the 7 inch stack of books and I realized for the first time that when I say "there isn't much material for this age" I mean "Here is way more material than a kid could actually do in a reasonable amount of time."  I have a 3 foot stack for Kindergarten test prep, so 7 inches seems pretty meager. In retrospect, I only recommend a 7 inch stack for K.

Here's the list in order of easy to hard, which is roughly the order that the child would be introduced to the books.
  1. Building Thinking Skills grades 4 to 6.   No one has ever complained to me that this is hard. Working ahead requires going much slower, but this enforces the skills in parent and child that is the key to GAT.
  2. Vocabulary Workshop, starting with grade level.   Best book ever.  It's fun for the kids, maybe not immediately, but certainly after the child has to do the other work.
  3. A single COGAT practice test from Mercer to become familiar with the format and rules of the test.
  4. A double practice test for Smart Cookie for the COGAT.  These questions are much more creative and unusual compared to Mercer, a bit less like the test, but a bit better for learning.
  5. I didn't bring the NNAT book for 3rd and 4th grade, but this would be on my list as well if there was enough time for test prep.  I might use this instead of #4.
  6. A 5th grade Reading Comprehension book from Contentment Press (Level E in this case). To simulate the actual conditions of the test, we did one or two questions about every 3 to 4 weeks.  This material isn't used to teach verbal skills, but to teach doing confusing and baffling questions way beyond your level for an hour skills.
  7. Test Prep Math Level 2.  Maybe Level 3, depending on where the child is with working memory and core academic skills.
  8. If the child has a year to prepare, I would also recommend 3rd or 4th grade reading comprehension from Continental Press to alternate with Vocabulary Workshop.
If a child did the whole stack thing in 3rd grade, and the parent coached it properly as described in the TPM introduction, I would expect the normal slightly above average child to end up at about 99.999% by test time, whether the test is the COGAT or the ITBS or both. For a child 3 months from test time, I think I would pick just one practice test from #3, #4, and #5, and just get one reading comprehension book.  I'd probably just do Level D. 

It's hard enough reading polite people, let alone nice doctors, but I challenge anyone to tell me what an anesthesiologist is thinking.  When I showed him Test Prep Math Level 2, I think I got a slight, subtle reaction of Shock and Horror or Bemusement that a child would be expected to answer any of the questions in this book.  I opened it to the middle and asked him to read one of the questions.  I think he expected to understand the question quickly and know the answer immediately, but as my readers know, the book is specifically designed so that you can't understand the question unless you think about it carefully. That's the whole point of gifted and talented.  No child is going to go from 50% to 99% by doing a bunch of easy problems, and that's why I think Building Thinking Skills falls a bit short and why I recommend jumping to the 4-6 grade book. BTS was written when the GAT cutoff was much lower and coaching practices had not been developed.

I flipped to the next page and their was the Roberta Bondar question.  The question text for this question fills the page. The child is asked to calculate how many years of graduate school the parents have to pay for if the child wants to be an astronaut scientist, which is what I was thinking when I first used this material.  Bondar has something like 23 graduate degrees and this question came directly from a wiki.  It's one of the easier questions because once the child realizes that he just has to add the numbers, there's not much more to it.  Someday, this skill will come in handy when the child has 500 pages to read each week and only 15 hours to do it.  Regardless, from now on I'm not going to show this book to parents unless their child is already in a GAT program.  I'll just sit down with their child and coach them through a few problems, and then list all of the cognitive skills just exercised to the parent.

This solid approach is undercut by a late start.  In the case of Wonder Dad, he registered for the test as soon as possible and they already took it, which is one of the worst things a parent can do.  Always delay the test to the last possible minute when you have a stack of test prep material.

For parents who come late to the game, here's the strategy.   Do all of the above, and finish as much as possible, especially TPM which is the most challenging book on the list.  Well, reading comp Level E is ridiculously hard, but you should at least finish Level C.   The next step is to do next year's school's math book. The following year, you can bring your child's test scores to the principal and teacher and ask why they would penalize your brilliant child by excluding this kid from the GAT program.  If you live in Chicago, take the test again because there are open seats every single year.


  1. With respect to #3, should I get grade 1 book for grade 1 or above the grade level? We're prepping for COGAT and NNAT2.

    1. We got a copy of the 2nd grade book. The difficulty level is about the same, but the format changes. More numbers and text. I recommend you stick with 1st Grade. On the other hand, the 3/4 Grade NNAT book is good if you have time to do it.