For most parents, the smartest, simplest advice I can give is to start their child’s test prep six months earlier than they had planned. “But my older child got into Stuyvesant and he did nothing more than a couple of practice tests in September!” “Why should my daughter study for the NYS Common Core Math exam? Her teacher will review in class – and besides, she got all 3’s and 4’s last year.” “My son loves to read and he does fine on the ERBs. Does he really need to study for the ISEE?” These are typical parents’ protests when I tell them, “Gee, it would have been great if we had started your child’s test prep a semester and a summer earlier.” Here are six reasons why early prep is so important:
- Competition is keen: All the admissions and placement tests are ever-more competitive. The SHSAT, ISEE, SSAT, and competitive public middle school exams are all based on a curve or cut-off. Since other students are studying for them, even very bright, capable students need to be prepared. In fact, who do you think is studying hardest? The other bright, capable students – your child’s most serious competition.
- School is not enough: Regular class time review for the NYS Common Core end of year tests is helpful, but insufficient for deep learning and drill. These tests get odder and trickier every year, so top scores can be especially unpredictable for the unprepped student. A student who has been studying gradually over the course of weeks and even months will be experienced in a broad array of material and thus confident, regardless of the test’s vagaries.
- Verbal skills are multifarious: To improve verbal skills (in critical reading and vocabulary-centric test sections such as sentence completions or synonyms, as well as written responses in ELA exams), students must engage in an extended period of enhanced reading assignments, daily vocabulary building exercises (yes, daily!) and diverse leisure reading. Today’s tweens and teens read a lot – a lot of dystopian fiction. Guess what? That’s not on any of the tests! Instead, they may encounter Jane Austen or Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass or Franz Kafka (well, probably no Kafka, but possibly an archaic poem or excerpt from a nineteenth century autobiography). School does not prepare students for the more difficult readings and new genres they will face on these exams.
- Top math skills take time: The public school exams purportedly test no material above the students’ grade level. That suggests the test is easy, but we know it can’t be or everyone would be admitted, not just the top scorers! So students need to build math skills at and above their grade level – progressively, doing supplementary material outside of school, tackling all the extra credit or “spicy” questions offered in class homework, too. Many students need to bone up on their addition/subtraction and multiplication/division tables. With no calculators allowed, slow or sloppy calculations can wreak havoc on the scores of even the mathematically swift.
- Test-taking techniques make a difference: Students need to learn test-taking skills, the most sophisticated of which they won’t be taught at school. Younger students and boys in general are especially prone to doing math calculations in their heads. Training students to write in their test booklets takes time. Learning to think of their own answers in reading questions – before peeking at the answer choices – is really tough for younger kids, but even they can learn a new way to approach test taking that will raise their scores.
- Extended prep is a platform: Longer term study turns new skills into established ones. Growing into new skills and putting new knowledge to use incrementally is critical to solid performance on test day. Getting comfortable doing timed tests, using bubble sheets, answering questions in the manner required for full credit (as in the NYS ELA and Math written responses) means students will be at ease and in control on test day.