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Losing My Mind - son keeps failing tests but acing all homework & practice quizzes


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My oldest (currently a HS junior) is in DE at the local community college. He's never been an excellent test taker but he's done ok over the years. This year he is not doing well on tests at all. Every class he's taken (with the exception of English), he has struggled to pass the tests in the class. He's keeping his grades up with class participation, passing some tests and staying in contact with the professors. Almost all these classes offer either practice tests or quizzes. He ACES the practice tests and quizzes-in every class. I have no idea what is going on...I don't think it's test anxiety as he has tested well on SAT & ACT's which I would think would be the most stressful of them all.

He met with a learning specialist back in 8th grade for an informal evaluation as I was concerned about his test taking skills then. Her analysis was that there were no issues, he was just over confident in himself and went too fast. I've talked till I'm blue in the face about taking his time, writing down every line of the problem, etc, etc. 

 He just came down to tell me he'd failed his second College Algebra test. I know he rushed through it and when I looked at his scratch paper where he did the work it was a hot mess. Final answers not written down, didn't number the problems-just math problems scribbled all over the page. I do think he has an executive functioning disorder...he is very disorganized and easily distracted. I've been told by his pediatrician, learning specialists, and former teachers that he doesn't but something isn't clicking. 

All these tests have been on the computer here at home due to COVID. I don't know if there is a disconnect between his head and the keyboard or what. But again...acing the homework & quizzes which are also on the computer. My gut tells me it isn't him not being prepared or not knowing the material. But if the experts are saying it isn't a learning disability, then what could it be?

I feel like we are at a huge tipping point. If we don't figure out the issue, I don't know how I can let him continue DE classes. He is very mature and really, really wants to continue to take dual enrollment classes. He has a goal that he is laser focused on for his college career and beyond. Has anyone experienced this? 

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Is there a difference in the homework being open-book and the tests being closed-book?  Like, can he work problems if he's following an example in the book but not on his own?  Or, do the tests require synthesizing several different techniques into multistep problems?  Or, are the quizzes over shorter bits of information but on the tests you have to figure out which approach to use?  For little kids, that's how Singapore math was - every assignment was over one type of problem, and then there were unit tests over just that concept.  But, the end of chapter reviews covered everything from the whole year-to-date.  It could be something else, but these were 3 things that seemed like they could be easily checked and remedied.  

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3 minutes ago, Clemsondana said:

Is there a difference in the homework being open-book and the tests being closed-book?  Like, can he work problems if he's following an example in the book but not on his own? That was the biggest thing I saw with kids -- thinking that it was enough to take the practice test as open book, and then if they couldn't figure out questions, to just read the solutions. 

That was the biggest thing I saw when teaching calculus -- thinking that it was enough to take the practice test as open book, and then if they couldn't figure out questions, to just read the solutions. I couldn't convince kids that this didn't show any kind of mastery. 

 

3 minutes ago, Clemsondana said:

Or, do the tests require synthesizing several different techniques into multistep problems?  Or, are the quizzes over shorter bits of information but on the tests you have to figure out which approach to use?  For little kids, that's how Singapore math was - every assignment was over one type of problem, and then there were unit tests over just that concept.  But, the end of chapter reviews covered everything from the whole year-to-date.  It could be something else, but these were 3 things that seemed like they could be easily checked and remedied.  

Yeah, those could also be it. 

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My community college lecturers allow unlimited time and unlimited tries for quizzes but exam is one time only and 2hrs maximum. 
 

I also had a class where quizzes were mainly multiple choice questions while the exam was mainly type the answers. So you could guess for multiple choice questions easily but you have to know your work to type correct answers in (besides being careful when typing).

SAT and ACT are all multiple choice questions if you don’t choose to do the essay. AP exams would be a closer proxy to DE exams

My kids DE exams for math are all print, write and scan though. Their quizzes are also handwritten.

Whether there is or there isn’t a learning disability, how are his test taking skills? Maybe you can observe how he takes the quizzes and exams. 

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A few thoughts-  if its multiple choice, could he be clicking the right answer, then tabbing down to the wrong answer?  My DD has had this problem with a few different providers.  Since its math, is he using the correct form?  DDs math teacher gave them credit for work done for the test on paper bc sometimes the computer only recognizes one form of the answer.   This could be something as simple as a rounding error!  Could he mark answer sczn in his paper where he did the work?  

And one last thought- just because a kid is academically ready to take college classes, their EF skills may not be ready. I would help him find ways to organize himself snd his work. Checking in daily if necessary.   He's a Junior, so 16 or 17- he still has a ways yo go maturity-wise.  I don't think its necessarily a learning disability, maybe just a place he needs more help in .

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My HS math teacher forced us to produce very clear work, and this was a valuable skill. I have seen many, many students made mistakes stemming from sloppy work, e.g. adding something to only one side of the equation or copying things wrong. I have had to work with my kids on this as well, particularly in algebra. One of my kids, for example. liked to do long strings across the page, which inevitably led to errors. This required a lot of convincing on my part, only some of which was effective.

So I honestly think forcing your son to work more neatly and logically will pay off. He may have a lot of improvement possible in his executive functioning and academic skills even if they don’t meet the criteria for a particular condition.

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Thanks for all the feedback. Back when he was doing math for me he did have to keep his work organized. He used graph paper (still does) to keep numbers aligned. I was really strict with him about keeping problems organized and not jumbled on the page. When he started DE, I was hands off. Thought he’d have kept the habits I drilled into him. I think BusyMom5 might have hit on his math issue. I know many times when he was using TT he’d explain he’d get a problem marked wrong because he clicked on the wrong answer. He’d show me the work & sure enough what he wrote down was correct, just clicked on the wrong answer.

My major concern is that it’s not just math-it was also economics, psychology and American government. He took psychology & American government in the fall and the testing situation was the same in that he excelled in class work but not so awesome on tests. Economics was just awful...same situation. English has been the only subject he’s sailed through no worries.

I’ve really tried to let him do all this in his own. Last year I had him start mapping out his day every day in terms of his to do list. Before 10th grade, I’d been giving him an agenda and all he had to do was check things off as he did them. This year I’ve been checking in periodically to be sure he’s staying on top of things. Most days he does. He does have quite the attitude (he is 17 after all 😉 and thinks his way is the best way but he’s doing a great job of proving himself wrong. 
 

I’d rather he make these mistakes now while he’s at home do we can help him work through them but ugh....since it’s DE, it’s permanent. 

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I would have him go to his professors' office hours and tell them about his test difficulties and see if they can help point him in the right direction. They probably at least have online office hours. If nothing else, he should be there for extra help if he's failing tests. They should be the first resource- not the last. It would be good for him to get into the habit of going to office hours before he's on his own.

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He’s been in contact with all his professors. None of them will meet in person due to COVID but he’s had phone calls and/or emails with them. 
 

The lack of efficient & good study skills is frustrating. I’ve tried to teach and show him as has my husband. He’s had co-op teachers through the years give him tips & advice. I’ve purchased study skills books, given them to him to read. All to no avail. I’d thought that college level classes would light a fire under him but I’m not seeing it. Frankly, it doesn’t help that most of the classes are on line. The Economics & Am Government didn’t even have teacher lectures. Just read the textbook, participate in the class “discussion” (post thoughts on online forum), take the tests. No personal instruction at all. 

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The best book that I've found is Learning how to Learn by Oakley.  It explains the neurobiology of why different techniques work, but it's written to middle schoolers so it's an easy read.  Maybe he'd find something in that to be helpful or convincing?  

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Maybe he needs to learn how to take the test. My dd had the hardest time with multiple choices test, we worked a lot on test taking strategies, when she was in middle school. I used several books to help her learn techniques for test taking. 
Here are a couple we used

Mastering the Art of Test Taking https://www.amazon.com/dp/0578009986/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_glt_fabc_MG5R977JZGSZ28P35KH8

Gruber's Essential Guide to Test Taking: Grades 6-9 https://www.amazon.com/dp/1510754288/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_glt_fabc_TN6PX4461Q5W5WXDXNA5?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1
 

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@ClemsondanaI had to laugh when I read your comment. Yes, Barbara Oakley's book is fantastic. I have her original one along with the one she wrote for teens. Gave it to dear son. He claims to have read it but obviously isn't implementing her tips. I'm going to take a look at the test taking books but I think this is a study skills issue and frankly, he is going to have to mature and and somehow find what his motivation is to focus and improve. I'm feeling somewhat defeated in that I feel like I've done what I can do to assist him but I won't hold his hand. He's a smart kid, quite capable of figuring things out. Just hard to watch.

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On 3/7/2021 at 6:52 PM, ShepCarlin said:

My major concern is that it’s not just math-it was also economics, psychology and American government. He took psychology & American government in the fall and the testing situation was the same in that he excelled in class work but not so awesome on tests. Economics was just awful...same situation. English has been the only subject he’s sailed through no worries.. 

Psychology, American Government and Economics all have stuff to memorize (if tests are not open book). If he isn’t interested in those, he might not be keen to remember stuff for the tests. 

Is English his favorite or strongest subject? 

1 hour ago, ShepCarlin said:

 I'm feeling somewhat defeated in that I feel like I've done what I can do to assist him but I won't hold his hand. He's a smart kid, quite capable of figuring things out. Just hard to watch.

Get him to contact his community college student services 

e.g. 

“TEACHING & LEARNING CENTER

Tutoring Moves to Virtual Format

Our faculty and peer tutors are available for help with reading,  writing, research, and study skills for all subjects.”

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@Arcadia He hated Economics but likes Psychology & Am. Government. Yes, lots of memorization. English isn't his favorite but he's good at it. I told him to contact the learning center at the CC but as of yet, he has not contacted them. Have I mentioned I'm losing my mind with this kid?

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Have you sat down with him to look and see what types of questions he is missing?  Sometimes a student is having trouble with definitions, sometimes it is application, sometimes it is calculations.  If you can find a pattern with the types of questions he is missing it may give you a clue of how to address the issue.  How to approach studying and test taking will be different if it is fact/memorization issues, calculations, or applications.

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13 minutes ago, ShepCarlin said:

@Arcadia He hated Economics but likes Psychology & Am. Government. Yes, lots of memorization. English isn't his favorite but he's good at it.

Does he dislike math? Economics is kind of like applied math. 

My teens are a year apart. Both would give me attitude but DS16 is a lot more matured than DS15. Even so, DS16 isn’t good at asking for help for English or History which are his weakest subject (we only DE his strong subjects). Advocating and asking for help are learned skills. Now while they are still home, its a good time to guide them along. For example DS15 withdrew from a class he found he has lost interest in so he will have a W on his community college transcript but it won’t impact his GPA. 
Even the community college is allowing people to request for their last quarter grades to be change to pass/fail if they have bad grades so as not to impact GPA. They relax the withdraw and pass/fail option deadlines due to the Covid19 situation.

Does he have a study area? Both my teens can be rather disorganized. We have to have a filing system and a dedicated study area. DS16 has a pile of unsorted math and Japanese assignments at his study area side table. He has already scanned and submitted but not file them away. 

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Don't over look the possibility of a learning disability. A couple of years ago, I helped a struggling community college student who finally sought an assessment after tutoring calculus, but failing his math exams.  His college had a unit that provide free testing and support.  

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My dd found out she had a learning disability in high school, when she started taking CC and AP classes. She is gifted and was able to compensate for the learning disability at the high school course level, but she was unable to compensate when the classes were CC and AP level. Your son's story sounds very similar to my dd.

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