Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Little Skills in Test Prep

I've always approached Test Prep as teaching the skills that the test is measuring.  I see no difference between test prep for a cognitive skills test like the COGAT and growth in learning abilities.  Test prep when done right is basically growing the brain.

For lack of time, my first shot at test prep was to focus on the big skills.  I determined correctly that the little skills would take care of themselves.   The big skills will have a big impact on school and annual standardized tests, whereas a few of the little skills may not be relevant outside of the domain of a GAT test. Some are, some aren't.

For the last year or so, I've been knee deep in the little sills, and they are really cool.  I didn't think they were important at age 5.  By age 8 or 9 I see these start to come into play on tests, certainly in school, and definitely in a GAT program. Standardized tests like the ITBS use these little skills a little, the MAP test uses them a lot, and the little skills are the primary challenge on the SAT and GRE. State designed tests like Texas STAAR and the old ISAT appeared to avoid any skills.  While I was dissecting the SAT I generated a long list of these skills, and when I went backward through age 5, I could see these everywhere.

I'm kicking off this series with a summary of the big skills.  These take a few months to develop, but much less time than the little skills.  If you get the big skills right, you don't have to worry about the little skills, unless you live in Chicago and need a 99.8% which is what we are facing next year.  If your kid is in 5th grade or higher, there is almost no traditional test prep material available, so you have to find something that will challenge the skill set.  If your child is in K or 1st grade, there's a ton of material available.

Big Skill #1:  Be baffled.  If your child panics, quits, cries, or asks for help because they are looking at something new and different that they have to spend more than 10 seconds trying to understand, then your child does not yet have this skill.   The definition of a problem on a cognitive skills tests is 'new and different' so this is the big one.  Further progress depends on this skill.  You can google my blog and 'baffled' to see more guidance.   The material you use should be baffling and take 10 minutes per question or more to figure out or your child will gain the opposite of this skill.

Let me repeat this.  If your child regularly works on simple operations, lots of problems (20 or 30) that are routine and can be done from memory with little thinking, then the child is learning the opposite of this skill and may fall apart when faced with a challenging problem.

There are a lot of little skills behind this skill.  'Hey, I'm totally baffled but it doesn't bother me' is a good start, but you have to dig in a little.  It's in the digging in and doing one problem after another where the child starts to get past baffled.

Big Skill #2:  Read the question.  I've never had a student who reads the question adequately.  Never. There's a 100% probability that your child doesn't even come close to reading the question unless you survived Test Prep math that has questions that don't make a lot of sense on purpose.  The question on cognitive skills test includes the answer set, but most students are already in solving mode by the time they get to the answers.  Does the question have any words or shapes or correlations that have 2 meanings or 2 possibilities?  Are there any little details worth noting?  Distractions?  New things? I'm already hinting at the little skills behind this big skill which you'll never see zooming through 10 problems in one sitting.

Big Skill #3:  Make mistakes.  I first learned about the importance of mistakes on cognitive skills exams by not reading the question carefully and finding out that the answer I was looking for wasn't in the answer set.  I thought that mistakes were built into the exam to differentiate kids who were OK with mistakes, and thus prepared to take on accelerated work in a GAT program from those who are unwilling to try again, so they guess and move on.  Then I researched mistakes more and found out that this is where learning happens.  Then I decided that a GAT child is required to have the patience and resilience to try again, over and over again if necessary.  Then I discovered the Grit literature. Whatever.  Mistakes are incredibly important, and this makes most test prep workbooks counterproductive because they are too easy.  Mistakes are really the clue that there is a little skill on the horizon.

Big Skill #4:  Working Memory.  This skill is fundamental to test performance.  (Strong readers appear to have it naturally, although it took them 1,000's of hours of reading to get it.)  School work on the other hand is one-step, one-shot.  Cognitive skills tests are usually 2 steps, minimum. Sometimes 4 or 5, but at least 2 steps or 2 concepts at once.  If your child does a practice problem and has no problem holding it in memory while working it out, the material is too easy and you are not making progress (you being you and your child).  There are no little skills behind working memory, but I've found problems that tax working memory to be the source of most little skills.   I think this is worth repeating.   Most little skills on my list emerged while working on problems that tax working memory.    Cognitive skills test measure working memory implicitly.

Over the years, I've written articles on why I don't like Kumon and most math curriculum.  The short answer is that none of these skills can be found in their material.  So I invented Anti-Kumon which is behind all of my books.  I've also recommended starting a 5 year old on 2nd Grade Every Day Math because the whole experience will be a tour d'force of the big skills.

Here is your first little skill.  I'm going to explain it in context and elaborate how it works.  You may think you know the answer, but there are at least 3 future articles behind this diagram and I'll state what you are thinking is the answer in the first paragraph of the next article on my way to a much longer explaination.  This is a transformation of a square (which I drew free hand and it's more of a rectangle but pretend it's a square).  What is the transformation?



  1. I've been getting emails every other day from some of the online test prep programs to purchase theirs. I guess the cogat season has officially begun in many states. I've been comparing these online programs and they seem to be unknown and no contact information whatsoever I can find from their websites. For example, mathtosuccess has no phone number or address or live customer service rep, testprep online seems to be run by a foreign company that claims their headquarter is NYC. The biggest problem is that I don't see their free sample questions so I have no idea what would be the quality of their practice questions. Can you help me decide on whether to purchase any of these online programs and which one if you're familiar with them at all? Also I hate the idea of doing any kind of test prep online (call me an old fashioned), I'd rather want to print them out for my children so that causes my hesitation. But at the same time, I'd love for them to do more practice tests that can't be found in some of the test prep books that may be obsolete.

    1. Excellent questions and comments. First, practice tests aren't obsolete. They help children understand the format and the rules of the test so that they don't slip up at test time. Second, practice tests don't help beyond that. Third, online websites tend to have a large quantity of low quality questions or a small quantity of dubious quantity questions at a ridiculous price. 4. I would never use online anything for academics unless it's wikipedia, because it's a completely different learning experience and I don't mean that in a good way. 5. Sample questions aren't enough. I'm finding bad questions, as in logically invalid or trivial with nothing test-like going on in the problem or repetitive, which is what the test is not. 6. If you bought my books, you'd know exactly where to direct your questions, but these aren't practice tests. 7. I like all practice test problems even the bad ones from bad websites because if nothing else, I can ask my kids to explain why I just wasted $69.