Robin MacFarlane, PhD, Cognitive Ability Test Expert

Dr. Robin MacFarlane specializes in psychological and educational testing. She has administered and overseen the administration of hundreds of testing batteries and has consulted to state and national educational assessment programs, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) outreach to schools. Her work has won awards from the American Psychological Association and the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology. She’s the author of Thinking Skills for Tests, part of the Kindergarten Test Study System, which is used by parents to prepare their young children for testing that’s used by gifted and talented educational programs.

What is the OLSAT and how is it different from other tests given to young children?
The OLSAT assesses the ability to think, otherwise known as “cognitive ability.” Cognitive ability tests can predict how well a child can do in school and so are used to place children in appropriate educational programs.
There are two types of cognitive ability tests: tests that are administered individually, that is, the child meets one on one with the person giving the test, and tests that are administered to a whole group of children at once. Some common individually-administered tests are the WPPSI, WISC and Stanford-Binet. Common group-administered tests are the OLSAT and CogAT. It’s important to know that for children ages four and five, the OLSAT is not given in a group, but is given one on one, because young children can’t be relied upon to concentrate in a group setting.
What’s different about these types of tests?
The individually-administered tests (WPPSI, WISC, and Stanford-Binet) can be tailored to each child's particular needs. Questions can sometimes be repeated, children can be prompted to elaborate on their answers and children can be given extra encouragement if necessary.
The administration of the group tests (OLSAT and CogAT) follows a strict standard protocol. This means that, most of the time, questions cannot be repeated, and prompts and extra encouragement cannot be given because the administration must be exactly the same for every child who is tested. In many ways this is fair, but it does require that a child listen very carefully, elaborate on his or her answers without prompts and tackle difficult questions without much encouragement.
I tell parents that if they want to prepare their child for testing, it’s more important to prepare for tests like the OLSAT than it is to prepare for the individually-administered tests. Tests like the OLSAT require children to do more things on their own without prompting or assistance, and so it makes sense that children spend some time practicing things like listening carefully and elaborating on their answers.
What do the scores mean for students, teachers and school districts?
A school or school district will generally use a cut off score and will select students who score higher than the cut off for their program.
It needs to be said that there’s controversy about using cognitive ability tests for young children. A group of early childhood educators has even issued a position statement recommending that testing be delayed until age nine. What we know about the development of cognitive ability is that, prior to age nine, it’s episodic and uneven. There are sudden growth spurts of cognitive development and also periods of rest where there’s very little observable growth. Because cognitive ability is in flux and variable in young children, any measure of cognitive ability is going to reflect these fluctuations and so may not reflect “true” ability at this age.
Even with the unsettled nature of cognitive development, it’s nevertheless defensible to select high scoring children for academically-accelerated programs. The problem is not for children who are capable of obtaining a high score. The problem is that children who score below the cut off may be capable of handling an academically-accelerated program in the future but their abilities may be in a state of relatively slow development at the time the test is given, and so, for them, the test is not a good predictor of ability.
Why should parents and students be concerned about their scores?
The only reason the score is important is because it determines whether a child may be admitted to an academically-accelerated program. Other than that, because of the issues discussed above, parents need not consider a score as revealing a “truth” about their child.
Why is it important for students to prepare for these tests?
Because it’s important that children gain some familiarity with the demands of group tests, parents are usually given some practice test questions prior to the test. For example, in New York City, prior to OLSAT testing, parents are given practice test questions to familiarize their children. If parents want to prepare further, they should choose activities that build the skills measured by these tests. Ideally, while practicing these skills, children also should form a habit of listening carefully, elaborating on answers, and persisting even when questions are difficult.
How much time should a parent and their children spend in test preparation?
Before I talk about how much time to spend, I first want parents to know a few things that may alleviate their anxiety and prevent them from doing too much, or inappropriate, test preparation.
First, every parent should relax, because even without any preparation, some children do very well.
Second, there’s nothing- absolutely nothing- a parent can do to accelerate cognitive development if it’s in a period of rest. If cognitive ability just isn’t ready to fully reveal itself, it won’t show up on a test no matter what you do.
Third, parents should know that test preparation is limited in what it can do. Some test preparation companies claim to be able to “raise scores” but this is not quite true, yet companies get away with making untenable claims because the test preparation industry is unregulated. Even so, what test preparation can do, if it’s done right, is help children overcome barriers that can prevent them from doing their best on a test. In other words, you can think of test preparation as practice that can rid your child of handicaps (such as lack of familiarity with tests) that can mask his or her current ability. However, test preparation cannot result in scores that are beyond a child’s current ability level, even if that child is a future genius who is currently in a state of slow cognitive development.
Finally, a child is prepared for a test after he or she has had the opportunity to become familiar with the skills covered by the test. This can be accomplished by reviewing the practice test questions that are provided when you register for the test. However, I also think it’s important that children be given the opportunity to practice listening carefully, elaborating on answers, and persisting even on difficult questions. In my opinion, this can be accomplished by practicing for about 30 minutes, once a week, over a period of several weeks.
How does preparation differ for a young child compared to a high school student?
High school students read test questions on written tests. But young children are not assumed to be able to read, and so tests are administered to them via spoken information. This is why it’s important for children to get in the habit of listening carefully to test questions as they’re read.
What else is important for parents and students to know about test preparation?
Parents and teachers should tell children that test preparation, and the test itself, is “thinking work.” That’s what it really is, and children tend to take “work” more seriously than “games.”
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