Making Academic Progress during COVID-19:
Letters from our Founder

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A Strong Academic Foundation Is Built Early

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

Academic growth is scaffolded: mastery of prior skills is necessary to succeed in more advanced skills.

This becomes especially clear when teaching math to high school students. We show our students how the Pythagorean Theorem (content they likely first encountered in middle school) is related to more advanced math content they’ll encounter throughout high school: the distance formula, the equation for the circle, the Pythagorean Identity in Trigonometry, the modulus in the imaginary plane, etc. Basic skills build up to advanced skills, and they are all related, and a deep, conceptual understanding of early skills is essential for success on later ones.

When those relationships are not made clear—or understanding is lacking at any level—the concepts remain disconnected, and mastery of the more advanced skills becomes limited.

The Importance of Rigor

Research shows that one of the most important factors in driving academic mastery is the expectations provided by teachers—and the quality of instruction that results from those expectations.

Teachers who agree that their students can meet the bar set by grade-level standards tended to offer stronger assignments and instruction, while teachers who hold the lowest expectations tended to offer lower-quality assignments in their classrooms.

Those choices have consequences: in classrooms in the top quartile for teacher expectations, students achieved five more months of growth than students in classrooms in the bottom quartile for teacher expectations.

As a result, then, it’s not surprising that grades aren’t always a very good indicator of whether students have actually mastered grade-level academic skills. While higher grades do correspond to a greater chance that students can do grade-level work, that chance is not especially great, even for students who bring home As and Bs. On the whole, students who earn Bs on their math and ELA coursework have a less than 35 percent chance of having met their state assessment’s grade-level bar. Even an A is far from a guarantee: 29 percent of A students do not meet their state assessment’s grade-level bar.

In a system where many students pass from year to year underprepared for what comes next, teachers often find themselves teaching students who truly aren’t yet working at grade level. They feel forced to choose between assigning grade-level work that’s beyond their students’ current skill set or assigning work that matches those skills—but is below grade level. By providing low-level work, they are then reinforcing the cycle, and students continue to move forward unprepared for higher-level academic rigor.

Why Does This Matter Now?

As we emerge from a year of hybrid and remote learning, we remain focused on ensuring that students maintain academic progress. It’s important to ensure that the work students are engaged in is rigorous enough, that As and Bs earned are truly reflective of essential, grade-level skill mastery, and that we show students that we maintain the highest expectations for their academic success.

We’re happy to share other key tips and resources. Feel free to give us a call at 773-348-8914 or get in touch by filling out our contact form.

Be well,

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

3 Key Habits Of Students Who Prepare For Success

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

Over the years, we’ve been impressed by the achievements of so many of our students, and we’ve reflected on what key habits are correlated with their success.

As we approach spring exams and summer schedules, we want to identify three habits of successful students that are especially relevant this time of the year:

Goal Setting

When a student is passionate about pursuing long-term goals, it provides context—a Why?—for learning. Help your student establish a long-term context for learning: “If I work hard in my high school classes, I could end up getting into a program that trains me to do A, B, C, so I can make an impact on X, Y, Z.” If academic achievement becomes a means to a motivating end, students invest more persistence and patience in the learning process. Students who set and pursue goals are happier and more likely to persist in setting more ambitious goals in the future.

Anticipating Obstacles & Planning

Students who forecast and plan—clearly anticipating challenges—are much more likely to navigate obstacles successfully. Research on patients preparing for medical procedures can shed light on how careful, clear anticipation helps minimize anxiety in the face of challenges: patients who were warned before an unpleasant medical procedure about what would happen and how much it would hurt found that the warning significantly reduced their actual discomfort during the procedure. Think ahead to final exams or next year’s coursework. “How will I space out preparation, given the time I have, the effort required, and the scope of the challenges I face? If my spring is busy with extracurriculars, I’ll feel stressed by trying to do too much at once, and prepping earlier for finals will be necessary. If my fall is filled with commitments, preparing for difficult courses during the summer would be smart.” Students who identify challenges and their impact in advance will find them less difficult to overcome when they inevitably occur.

Cultivating Positive Habits & Mindset

The end of a school year presents an opportunity for reflection and establishing new goals:

Cultivate a positive mindset intentionally. When report cards, spring MAP scores, or other test scores are returned, take time to analyze, explain the results, and identify next steps to make improvements. The stories students tell themselves about their performances are critical to their self-image and self-esteem as learners: these stories affect both their mood and performance. Telling stories in a positive language of growth mindset can build positivity about and persistence in learning.

Build simple, consistent routines. Summer, too often, leads to the relaxation of rigor—school is out and so too are habits and structure. Rigorous work engaging in academics skills both limits summer learning loss and develops working memory, so students return to school in the fall well-prepared for more advanced courses.

We’re happy to share other key tips and resources. Feel free to give us a call at 773-348-8914 or get in touch by filling out our contact form.


Leveraging The Summer Productively For Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

As families and schools are planning summer schedules, we are hearing many questions about using this summer—in particular—productively for both test preparation and academic tutoring.

3 Reasons Why Summer Instruction is Valuable

Combating summer learning loss

  • It’s been well known and well researched that students on average lose 25-30% of school-year learning over the summer. What is not yet well known is how this rate of loss might be exacerbated now by a full year of remote and hybrid school learning. Anticipating and remediating that potential increase in learning loss raises the importance of this summer as an opportunity to engage students in needed academic skill building.

Assessing the student’s availability to learn

  • Finding time during a busy school year to supplement learning is a challenge; many students are focused—as they should be—on staying abreast of day-to-day assignments and lack availability to either remediate skills in need of development or enrich those that can advance further.
  • With more time and available working memory, concentrated instruction during summer can have a deep and lasting impact, helping students internalize skills deeply.

Building stronger outcomes

  • Unsurprisingly, our data show that students who begin preparing for college entrance exams in the summer show greater growth on the final official test than those who begin during the school year; in fact, students who start the summer before junior year versus junior spring can double their growth.
    We’d love to help plan for the summer and work with you. Please call (773) 348-8914 or email us to schedule a complimentary assessment.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

When Is The Right Time To Start Test Preparation?

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

This July will mark 20 years of Academic Approach answering a variety of your questions regarding test preparation, and one of the most frequently asked: When is the right time to start test preparation?

Avoiding Extremes

Your common sense tells you the obvious: avoid extremes. Last-minute cramming does not do enough, while overpreparation can be associated with burnout. So what’s the right amount of time?

Time & Performance

In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell’s popularized the claim that whether in sports, music, or academic performance 10,000 hours of practice is how long it takes to become an expert in something.

Not only is this claim impractical in most contexts (10 hours a week for 20 years to get to expert level–yikes!), but its focus on quantity and not quality obscures the true value of high-quality practice, which provides a meaningful learning experience: a cycle of study, retention, performance, insightful feedback, modification, and improvement. In fact, a later study found that looking at quantity alone accounted for only 4% of the variance in performance in education. That said, we know Gladwell is correct in that having enough time to prepare matters; there is certainly a minimum amount of practice required to develop expertise. But why?

In her research on choking under pressure, former Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and current president at Barnard College Sian Beilock highlights why having the time to practice matters: it reduces the burden of stress on working memory, so the capacity for thinking and problem solving is improved by mitigating the impact of anxiety during high-stakes events like the ACT and SAT.

Beilock’s research shows that practicing under stress, even a moderate amount, helps performers feel comfortable later when standing in the line of fire. They have increased confidence to face challenges calmly, retrieve key information reliably, and thereby perform optimally.

What our Research Shows

In looking at our own data, there is a clear relationship between preparation time and performance.

Students who start preparation in spring of sophomore year in preparation for a final test they take in spring of junior year or fall of senior year nearly DOUBLE the growth of students who start the summer prior to or fall of senior year in preparation for a senior fall exam. While this data represents average growth (and students follow very personalized pathways of learning), it does offer something broadly directional:

  • When preparing to perform well on a summative exam of grammar, reading, math, and scientific reasoning that spans 7th through 11th-grade curriculum, the appropriate amount of time to prepare matters
  • Spacing out—rather than cramming—preparation affords the student a gradual, in-depth process of learning academic content and skills, so working memory functions more efficiently and performance stress can be managed down more effectively over time

Therefore, we encourage—when possible—the use of sophomore spring and summer to begin instruction in order to achieve optimal performance.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

The Value Of Practice Tests In Student Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

Do practice tests impact student learning?

Over a decade’s worth of our own data indicates that they do. For our students who started with a diagnostic score below 20 on the ACT, the inclusion of four additional practice test opportunities as part of their instructional program led to nearly twice as much growth. For all our students, purposefully incorporating practice test opportunities leads to higher growth.

Why does practice testing matter?

It’s not because rote repetition (drill and kill) works; in fact, testing alone or in excess is ineffective. It’s the learning & teaching opportunity the testing presents that matters.

The Learning Opportunity

Research suggests that the very experience of test taking can be a meaningful learning activity because it engages students in practicing retrieval of core curriculum and problem-solving. This practice should be incorporated into learning in many ways: through intentional questioning and feedback during an instructional session, completing homework to reinforce, as well as practice testing. However, the real value for students from practice testing is in the experience of learning from their errors. For over 20 years, I’ve encouraged my students to understand the following: there is no true learning without the analysis of error. Developing error tolerance helps students engage in active, exploratory, problem-solving. Especially if our goal is optimal performance in high-stakes testing, we need to encourage students to allow themselves to make and correct errors while taking low-stakes practice tests. As parents and educators, we often focus on guiding our students to avoid errors at all costs, while error analysis, in fact, engenders learning. Fail forward; F.A.I.L. (First Attempt in Learning); mistakes are opportunities to learn —it’s important to encourage students to absorb mistake-making into their process of learning.

The Teaching Opportunity

Above all, knowledge of student errors helps the teacher improve instruction. Research on formative assessment (Black & Wiliam 1998; Dunn & Mulvenon 2009) shows that assessments used by teachers to focus instruction can drive learning. Analysis of student performance on assessments can indicate areas of difficulty where instruction should be focused and provide the teacher evidence of student thinking and misconceptions. What’s critical then is the feedback the teacher provides that drives student learning, which research has shown to be among the top influences on student achievement. Clear, timely feedback leads students to self-reflect and modify their problem-solving strategies while guiding them towards new learning and growth.

Practice testing can play a critical role in this important cycle of feedback, instruction, and learning. We encourage our students to find time for practice testing. While it requires that commitment of time, the learning and growth practice test-taking engenders is compelling.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

The Future of the ACT Essay

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

In our recent communication on the elimination of the SAT essay, we said we would keep you posted on the future of the ACT essay.

What’s the trend with the ACT essay?

We expect to see the ACT essay also retired in time, and the trend in college admissions requirements supports this prediction. At this point, the list of schools that actually require the ACT essay continues to diminish to a smaller and smaller set of schools, most of which are not target schools for our students:

• Elizabeth City State University (NC)
• Hobe Sound Bible College (FL)
• Molloy College (NY)
• Portland State University (OR)
• Soka University of America (CA)
• Southwest School of Arts (TX)
• United States Military Academy (West Point) (NY)
• University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (TX)
• University of Montana Western (MT)
• VanderCook College of Music (IL)
• Wyoming Catholic College (WY)
• York College of Pennsylvania (PA)

Why has the ACT essay lost relevance?

As an assessment of spontaneous writing, the ACT Essay has always been of debated value. While its grading rubric is intelligent, thoughtful, and useful in helping students cultivate college-ready persuasive essay writing skills, its grading (which happens under incredible time duress) and its placement (40 minutes at the end of a 3-hour exam) raise questions about the reliability of its results. By contrast, several years of essay writing grades in high school serve admissions officers as a far better index to a student’s writing ability.

So what should you do?

As a result, we are recommending that students do NOT register for the Essay Writing portion of the ACT going forward. Focus instead on the English, Math, Reading, and Science portions of the exam, which offer relevant academic insights into a student’s college readiness in addition to the student’s GPA from the high school classroom. Students should focus on their writing in the classroom as well as work on college application essays to demonstrate their authentic writing skills more effectively.

As always, consult with your college counseling team regarding specific advice on your testing plan, as they are your best advocates for a comprehensive review of your admissions approach.


Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

MAP Testing, Learning Loss, And Supporting Our Middle School Students

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

As students and families look ahead to the remainder of the school year, many are considering how to make the most of the remaining months of school and best assess ongoing student needs and gaps. We’ve discussed before the importance of assessment as a tool for providing targeted support for students; for our middle schoolers, the NWEA MAP test can provide great insight into individual student gaps and needs that may have emerged or progressed over the last year.

With most students receiving hybrid or remote instruction at this point in the school year, the MAP test may be even more important in increasing visibility into student progress than it has been in the past. We also know the importance of individualized instruction in closing learning gaps and supporting students as they advance. Assessments like the MAP test are only useful to students if they can use the feedback from that test to learn and grow. The best instruction is rooted in understanding and addressing a specific student’s needs.

We can use our diagnostic test to get the information sooner and have more immediate remedies to learning loss. Let us know if we can help.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

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Every Student is Different

We know our students; each one is unique, and each one requires a different approach, especially during these unprecedented times. That is why our ACT, SAT, and Middle School test prep is customized to each student and school partner.

We improve your students’ standardized testing by tailoring our research-based, expert instruction and curriculum to your needs, and we can get started with you right away.

Our offices are now open, but in a limited capacity. We are still offering online tutoring and all practice tests will remain virtual.

Reach out to us at 773-348-8914 with any questions.