Test Prep for Cognitive Testing – It’s a Myth

by Todd Stanley

As a gifted coordinator, I get this phone call all of the time:

Parent: My child is scheduled to take a cognitive test. What can they do to prepare for it?

Me: You can’t really do anything to prepare for it. It’s a cognitive instrument that measures ability. 

Parent: No, I mean, is there anything they can study?

Me: It’s not a test you can study for. A student either has the ability, or they do not. 

Parent: So there’s nothing my child can do to improve his chances of being identified?

Me: Not really.

And yet, when you look at the top-selling books for gifted education on Amazon, four of the top ten sellers, fifteen of the top 50, are books designed to help students score better on a cognitive gifted test. 

I understand the concept of a test prep book. How many students increase their ACT or SAT score by reading through a study guide? My major concern about test prep for a cognitive test is that it is all about allocating resources. In other words, ability is distributed evenly amongst people on the planet, but resources are not. For better or worse, some children have parents who go out of their way to provide any and every advantage they can, while others have parents who either do not or are not even aware of these resources. It is fair that child A, whose parents are college educated and use a vocabulary commensurate with that, reads to her every night, and watches vocabulary building shows on YouTube, scores gifted even though child B, who was not exposed to the opportunities that child A was but who has a higher ability, is not identified? It does not seem fair. 

I decided to run a little experiment. I chose my daughter, who is 11 years old, for a couple of reasons. First, she has been tested for cognitive a couple of times before, consistently scoring around the 115 mark. She is that almost gifted child who, with a slight push, might get over the hump and score the required 130 for identification. Secondly, being her parent, I can subject her to such an experiment without needing permission nor with concern over a lawsuit, unless my wife sues me, which would be a wash. 

My daughter was scheduled to take the Naglieri test, so I went onto Amazon and ordered an NNAT3 Practice Test. It was $25 for the book, so I was a bit surprised when it arrived and was fairly thin. I mean, I spent $20 on an ACT prep book for my older daughter, and it was nearly 900 pages. This slim tome was 44 pages. In its defense, it had an additional 6 pages for notes putting the total at 50, but not what I expected. The book was divided into 4 sections, each focusing on a different skill. There was pattern completion, reasoning by analogy, serial reasoning, and spatial visualization. 

I figured this would be good for my daughter because the Naglieri is not as traditional looking as most national standardized tests. Sometimes, just knowing what they are looking for can be a big advantage to students. It is a non-verbal test, so if you had never been exposed to it before, this series of patterns and shapes might be confusing. This might give her a better chance on the test because she would be familiar with this setup. 

We took it slow at first. I didn’t want to overwhelm my daughter. Over the course of a week, we did one section per sitting. She would put down her answers; we would check them with the answer key, and then talk about why she might have missed any that she did. The next round, I had her take two of the tests at a time, building up her endurance. Eventually, she was taking the entire practice test in one sitting. She definitely did better each time she took the test, but I was uncertain whether this was because she was getting better at this type of test, or because she was seeing the same problems again and again. 

About a week later, she was called down to take her Naglieri test. She scored a 117. She had improved by a whopping two points. A little bit of me was disappointed that the experiment hadn’t worked, but actually, there was a much larger sense of relief. There were three reasons for this relief.

First, it lets me know the testing is fairly consistent. My daughter has taken three different cognitive tests, the In View, the OLSAT, and the Naglieri, and yet there were only four points that separated all of her scores, a 113, 115, and a 117. That lets me know the scoring is accurate. It would have been more alarming if she had scored a 95, 115, and 135. I know it is a very small sample size, but this is a pattern I have seen throughout my 20 some years in gifted education. This gives me confidence that we are using measurements that are accurate. 

Second, my daughter is very bright. She is a hard worker, is nice to other students, and her teachers always describe her as being sweet, but does she need to be challenged? What I mean by that is my daughter has always been an above-average student, but I would not describe her as top of her class. I know through years of experience that many gifted students need that challenge because otherwise, they will be bored or might even shut down. My daughter is very compliant and never seems bored with school. I don’t think she needs the challenge nor the stress that sometimes accompanies it. First and foremost is that my daughter be a happy human being. 

Third, I would have felt bad if this additional practice, a resource that not all are privy to, would have resulted in her being identified where before she wasn’t. It is sort of like the college admission scandal that has been in the news the past few months. Those parents were giving their children an advantage that others didn’t have. Equity of the identification of minority or economically disadvantaged students has long been a goal of mine, and yet here I would have been exploiting an advantage others might not be able to afford or might not even be aware of. I’d like to think if she had reached the required score to receive gifted service that I would not have taken it because I wouldn’t have felt right about it. Course, we’ll never know what I would have really done, though. 

The one thing that I do know is the next time I get that phone call, and a parent is asking me whether there is anything their child can do to prepare for the cognitive test, my response will be a more confident no. 

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