What is the CSET?
The California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET) tests are used for teacher candidates to show "subject matter proficiency." Teachers are required to pass different CSET subjects for different credentials. Elementary school teachers must pass the multiple subjects CSET to show they have enough background knowledge to teach children in classrooms that in self-contained, general education classrooms. Most teacher training programs and their associated schools require that student teachers pass the appropriate CSET tests before beginning student teaching so that they can prove they have "highly qualified" teachers.
The most daunting part of applying to my teaching credential program was completing the CSET tests. I wanted to pass the three subtests before starting my credential program to save me from having to complete a "split" first semester (twice as long, twice as much money). Also, because I wanted to start my program in the summer term, I had to show "subject matter competence" in order to be admitted, as a split first semester was not possible. So I placed a lot of pressure on myself to pass on the first try.
When I first decided to get my teaching credential I made a plan to start studying for the CSET tests in November 2017. Take the first subtest in February 2018, the second in March 2018, and the third April 2018. I spent November, December, and January studying for the CSET Multiple Subjects Subtest I: Reading, Language, Literature, History and Social Science. Because it was the first test, I started there. This was also the test I felt I needed to work on the most. The plan was to move on to math and science prep in February and early March. Finally, art, PE, and human development in March and early April.
Take Subtests Separately or All Together
My original plan was to take all the subtests separately, one per month, allowing for time to study each content area. What ended up happening was a little different. I took subtest I in early February, as planned. Then I started to review for subtest II. Because I felt most confident about math and science, this one was the test I felt I needed the least preparation for. I decided to leave subtest II for mid-March and move the date of subtest III up to early March. I went through the practice books for both subtests, mostly to start to plan my study schedule, and then spend the next weekend working on subtest III.
Then I found out from my credential program that I had to have passed all three tests, and have scores reported, by April 3rd to gain admission for summer, which was my goal. The day I found that out was February 14th. I went online to see when the last date I could get scores back and still meet the program deadline. The CTC releases test results in batches. In order for my scores to be back in time for me to submit to the program, I had to take the test no later than March 4th. March 4th! I wasn't even scheduled to take the second and third subtests until after March 4th.
Thankfully, they allow you to reschedule your test dates without a penalty (up to 24 hours before). The only problem was that the only date I could get without driving more than 80 miles was...February 15th. That's right, the very.next.day. After a pep talk from my husband I took the plunge and scheduled subtests II and II back to back the very next day. I went into the test center at 2:00 for subtest II and then back at 5:15 for subtest III.
Would I schedule all three together if I could do it again? No. Even though you save $50, you have less time if you take them all together. Also, I do not think I would have done as well if I had to complete subtest I (my weakest section) with the pressure of two more subtests to cram into my five-hour test window. I'm normally a pretty quick test taker, and even so, I used almost all of the three hours allowed for subtest I, I could not have completed subtests II and III in the time I would have had left. While I did not need the whole time allotted for either subtest II or III, I was glad to have it.
I started by looking at the materials online from the CTC. I was blown away by how much more difficult the test seemed than the CBEST. Quite frankly, I was scared. I had never taken any classes on reading instruction, so that whole section was completely new. I also had very little memory of anything I had learned in either ancient history or California history. What I did know was very superficial, so those were areas that I needed to build genuine knowledge.
The first book I got was the Cliffs Notes: CSET Multiple Subjects prep book. It's ok. Nearly everyone I found online said they used this book. I think the test practice materials in this book are superior to the next book I will talk about, but this did not help me learn content the areas that I needed to really learn: reading, world history, California history. The book as two full-length practice tests and a topic by topic review chapters. Each review chapter had a section with example questions and answers and a review of content in outline form. If what you need is just to brush up and practice, this book does the job. Because I knew the content areas, it was really all I would have needed for subtests II and III.
The second book I bought, after several months of slogging through the Cliffs Notes book preparing for subtest I, was Barron's CSET California Subject Matter Examinations for Teachers Multiple Subjects. This book was much better in some ways, not as good in others. This book has a pre-assessment section for each area of each subtest, followed by a content review section, and then a targeted assessment. In addition, this book also has two full practice tests. This book helped me so much more on the history and social studies section than the Cliffs Notes book, that it was definitely worth the $15 that I spent on a second book. The reason I don't whole heartedly recommend this book over the Cliffs Notes book is that the practice questions in the Cliffs Notes book were way closer to the actual tests than this book.
YouTube was the very best tool I used to help me prepare. I watched all of the Crash Course world history and US history videos. I also watched a handful of Crash Course chemistry, physics, and human development videos (they're in the Psychology playlist), too. These are the best investment of study time I made in the areas where I needed to genuinely learn new content. YouTube videos were also helpful in brushing up on things that were fuzzy in my mind from the other sections where I felt better prepared.
The reading section is a bit puzzling to me. It seems like this test should come after your teacher training (oh wait, it does, it's called the RICA). Who learns this stuff besides educators? Some of what you need to know is common sense, but some of it is very education specific. As someone who has a bachelor's degree in business and a master's in adult education, I had never taken any courses in reading instruction. I was lucky, though, because I have spent a lot of time in classrooms helping with reading instruction, so it wasn't entirely foreign. I found the videos from Chris Boosalis on RICA test prep from a blog post by Jackie at A Work in Progress and her "How I Studied for the CSET." Some of the content from these videos was helpful for the CSET, and this will definitely be a resource I come back to when I get ready for the the RICA.
How Did I Study?
The bulk of time I spent studying was for subtest I. Since this was the test that I had the most new material to learn, this is probably a good start if you're in the same situation. I spent a few days just learning what the test format was and what would be covered on the subtests. I treated subtest I like it had five separate sections: reading, "English" (language and literature), world history, US history, and California history.
I felt very confident about the language and literature section and didn't do any preparation for that part, other than the practice tests. I spent a lot of time learning the content for the reading section. I started with the Cliffs Notes book. I read and highlighted. Then I reviewed and highlighted. Then I made notes from my highlights. As I mentioned earlier, this book is basically an outline of the content with sample questions and answers. I was really frustrated until I came across the RICA prep videos. They helped me take what I was getting from the Cliffs Notes book and turn it into something useful that I could connect to how I saw kids actually learn to read. I didn't use the Barron's book much for that section, but only because I had already moved on to history when I bought the book. I think it would have saved me a lot of time and frustration if I had started with the Barron's book.
After reading I moved on to world history (focus on ancient history). This section is huge, too, and my prior knowledge was very murky. I'm not sure if I never covered much of the content in school or if I have lost all that learning along the way, either way, this whole section felt pretty new. The Crash Course world history videos are amazing. John Green is hilarious. He talks fast, but gives you a good "big picture" overview. I got more out of those videos than either of the test prep books for this section. I would say you should focus on the obvious parts first: Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Roman Empire, etc. There were questions from all of the areas listed in the test guide, but more on those sections.
US history was my next strongest section, but there is so.much.detail they could ask questions from, so I spent a good chunk of time working on reviewing that section. The Crash Course videos were very helpful. I also really liked the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast called "13 Reasons for the American Revolution." That single episode of the podcast helped me solidify my understanding of the Revolutionary War, a topic that I felt was a good possibility for a short response question.
Since I am homeschooling a pair of 6th and 7th grade students this year who did not learn much California history in elementary school, I took them through a unit on California history. We primarily used a book I got from the Teacher store on California History from Splash! Publications. It was fantastic. You can buy the book or you can get the identical content from their Teachers Pay Teachers store in digital form. I also found the Barron's test prep book to be pretty good for helping me learn the content for the California history section.
Because of my abbreviated preparation schedule, I only spent one evening preparing for subtest II. Basically I took one practice test. Since I got every question in the math section correct except the one question on quadratic equations, I just watched a couple videos on quadratic equations and moved on. I felt good about the science section. Well, everything except ecology. I have a lot of background and academic knowledge in anatomy, physiology, histology, and health, but not so much in ecology. And this test has a pretty hefty section on ecology. I watched a few videos to help me prepare, but I mostly figured that my score would be high enough in math and the other sciences that I could reason my way through that section.
Subtest III is such a weird mishmash of topics. The test covers human development, physical education (including health), art, dance, music, and theatre. That's a lot of ground. Fortunately, I have some background knowledge in all those areas. I didn't figure they could possibly go very deep into any of the art topics, and I felt that my life experiences were sufficient, so I just reviewed those sections in the Barron's book and watched one video on how to tell which key a piece of music is written in. I felt my weakest areas of that subtest were PE and human development. I watched a bunch of human development videos on YouTube the weekend before the test. I think I only took one practice test from each book for subtest III, since I was planning on having a couple more weeks to prepare.
What were the Tests Like?
The tests are hard. They just are. I almost feel like they are needlessly hard. I left subtest I convinced that I had failed it. From what I can tell by the key on the score sheet I did well on all three tests, so, perhaps, the fact that they are hard shouldn't be so intimidating.
The short response questions were what I expected, and I felt like I did an adequate job answering them. I felt better after finishing subtests II and III than I did after subtest I, but in no way was I confident that I had passed any of the tests.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you take these tests at a professional testing center. These places are designed to prevent people from cheating. They watch you the whole time. They make you lock your things in a cabinet or locker. They made me pat myself down to be sure I wasn't hiding anything in my clothes. They carefully inspected my glasses to make sure they weren't somehow modified. I had to take my hair out of my ponytail and run my fingers through it to show that I wasn't hiding something in it. It's just a weird experience. I know why they do it, but it sure does it increase the stress level. If you go into it knowing those things it might be a little less jarring.
The worst part for me was waiting for scores. Because of when I took the tests all my scores came back at the same time. They came out exactly the day they said they would at 5:00 pm. If you pass, you don't get a numerical score. I believe you do receive the actual score for that subtest if you don't pass, as well as a the comments on performance in each subject on the subtest to help you prepare for a retake.
While I passed all three test I still am not really sure how well I performed. There is a key included in the score report, but it is not as strait forward as a numerical score would be.
Advice to Test Takers
My best advice is to get one of the prep books and work through it. Knowing what you will be tested on is half the battle. Take the practice tests on the CTC website. They are more like the real tests than any other test prep material will be. Work on the areas where you are weak. YouTube is an amazing (and free!) resource for helping you prepare. I found great prep content on every area of the test except PE. Be prepared to answer content questions like a teacher. Many are posed as though you are the teacher explaining something to a student or asking you to plan for instruction. Knowing about the Common Core State Standards is helpful, but not essential.
The biggest enemy of test takers everywhere is anxiety. Do what you can to prepare, then let it go. Whatever will be, will be. Being stressed won't help. Watch this TED talk and do the Superman pose in the parking lot before you go in. You can't believe how much it might help.