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

Sign Up and Get Updated Directly to Your Inbox

Where We Stand & What We’re Doing

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

For months we’ve seen COVID-19 disproportionately impact Black communities and Black students. The recent protests and unrest have followed years of racial injustice, and are further impacting the health, wellness, and education of students in communities that are already at-risk. As an education company made up of individuals who care about diversity, equity, and racial justice, we feel that we can always be doing more to support students and communities.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We’re focused on 2 initiatives:

  1. Donations and in-kind services: We are financially supporting not-for-profit organizations in our communities, including My Block, My Hood, My City; A Better Chicago; and the Harlem Children’s Zone. We’ve spent many years working in partnership with impactful organizations in our communities, but we can do more. If you are associated with organizations that are helping families and students in crisis right now, please contact the chair of our Corporate Responsibility Committee, Brad Kessler: We would love to learn more and help.
  2. Education: We want to support extensive discourse on this topic that is as comprehensive as possible with our staff, families, and students. We’ve assembled a list of articles and resources for students and families to read that provide some context and depth of understanding. We’ve put a few links below, and you can find more on our website. We will continue to update this with valuable information. 

“I knew, even then, that whenever I nodded along in ignorance, I lost an opportunity, betrayed the wonder in me by privileging the appearance of knowing over the work of finding out.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates

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

Resource Sampling

Find more resources at

ACT Cancellations & Next Steps

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

Unsurprisingly—but inexcusably late—ACT canceled about 2/3rds of their national testing sites for the June 13th test. There are 20 sites listed in Illinois that are still available (of 129), but this is a moving target. We’ve attached a list by states relevant to most of you, so you can review.

What to do about the ACT on June 13th?
In Chicagoland and New York, some centers are still listed. Our list is a cross reference of known test centers against those stated by ACT to have been closed. It does not necessarily mean that those listed as open still are or will remain open. We suspect the open list too will likely close.

For our East Coast families and colleagues, most testing centers are closed in MA, NH, DC, and NY. Interestingly, in Wisconsin, a state that is now open, all testing centers except 1 have been closed. A note from ACT on these centers:

“There were instances in which a test center had to reduce their capacity due to social distancing guidelines determined by the CDC or state or local officials and it caused some students to be displaced. ACT prioritized students in 12th grade, followed by students in 11th grade, and then looked at the order in which a student registered for the ACT test. This decision was not made lightly, and ACT apologizes for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

If your test center was canceled, ACT has a new FAQ page with important information about rescheduling, including these key points:

  • Students should have received an email with details on rescheduling thru the ACT site.
  • They are NOT automatically re-registered and must change their registration in the system.
  • If students’ June test center was closed, they cannot change to another center for June.
  • They will be charged for the new test date and then refunded in 3-5 business days.
  • There won’t be any standby testing for June.
  • ACT has also removed any language about the June 20th makeup testing date.

We’ll be reaching out to help you navigate next steps. The best course of action varies by student. As always, “tests are standardized; students are not.”

Next Steps: July
While no test date is guaranteed at this moment in time, if you are registered for July, the test is six weeks away. In that time, we anticipate states to further open and continue to plan for appropriate distancing. It makes sense to prepare.

However, on our list of open Illinois-area test sites, you can see that there are very few July test centers available in the Illinois area with available seats, if you are not registered.

Next Steps: September
If you do not have a seat in July, the reality is that with so few test centers available for July, September presents schools and students the best possibility for safe large-scale testing events. Registration for September begins on July 14th.

Controversy & Consequences
As all this happens, College Board’s and ACT’s websites are crashing as students attempt to re-register. Amidst this turmoil, ACT’s current CEO Marten Roorda is stepping down. As chaotic as these times are, proactive and rational planning and communication are essential in leadership, especially when student success, access, and equity all hang in the balance.

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

AP Updates: Makeups, Results, and Continued Controversy

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

Makeup AP testing will begin next week, and with substantial backlash following the initial round of testing, we’re watching eagerly to see how things go. This will be students’ last shot at AP testing for this school year–so any technical issues won’t have the “makeup test” release valve that College Board relied on heavily in the first round for any students with issues.

Round One Lessons
College Board released detailed information on student engagement with the initial round of AP testing, including the number of students who began the exam, students who failed to complete the exam, and error rates for each test. Some have challenged this data already, wondering how College Board is distinguishing an “incomplete” from a true error, given the number of upload errors students reported on social media. Students were required to submit an application for a makeup exam by May 24 and will be notified by the end of this week if they qualified. College Board, meanwhile, is reporting this as a victory, claiming that more students attempted testing this year than is typical. More than 4.6 million students attempted an AP exam over ten days of testing: 93% of AP students. In typical years, College Board states that only around 91% of students complete exams.

Class Action Suit
Some students unable to submit, however, were not satisfied with the response. These students (joined by the FairTest organization) filed a lawsuit seeking both to force the College Board to score their exams and to provide “compensatory damages in an amount that exceeds $500 million” to “punish defendants” and “deter them from engaging in wrongful conduct in the future.” The lawsuit claims that the unvalidated and untested exams were a means to maintain a revenue stream. College Board contends that their quick adjustment to provide the tests at home provided the opportunity to access college credit to millions of students–and that these students still have the opportunity to take a makeup test. It remains to be seen how these students in the suit will participate in makeup testing in the coming weeks.

Timeline and Results
Another major shift with online testing is a new feature allowing AP teachers in high schools to view their students’ responses. Those are available to teachers beginning today (with makeup responses available on June 30th). Teachers can use these responses in grading for student courses. Scores will be available to students starting on July 15th.

Again, lessons learned and new developments for a present and future of testing that must involve increasing digital options for college entrance exams.

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

Brief Updates from ACT and the College Board: June, July, and After

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

I hope you had a restful long weekend. With canceled test dates in the spring, many students are eagerly awaiting their opportunity to take the ACT or SAT. As states begin to open up, ACT, College Board, and specific testing sites are all keeping a close eye on how to safely administer the tests.

SAT Updates
The College Board has finally released information on SAT test registration for fall dates. They plan to open registration tomorrow evening, May 28th, prioritizing rising seniors who were unable to test in the spring. Students without a spring test score or who were registered for June will be able to register early for the August 29, September 26, and October 3 test dates; registration will open for all other students soon. College Board has provided more info here.

ACT Updates
ACT is due this week to release updated information on the June 13th test. They have indicated that individual test sites will assess their ability to safely host a test site with state and local regulations around social distancing and with student health in mind. ACT will provide direct communication to registered students via email to their web account or a physical letter. They are also offering a makeup test date a week later–so we’ll be watching to see how test sites address this challenge. Should a test site cancel the June test date, students will have their next at-bat on July 18 for the ACT. Students can register for that test until June 19.

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

Colleges this Fall: Open, Remote, Hybrid, or Uncertain

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

I recently heard from a wonderful student of mine who was admitted to Notre Dame. He’s fortunate on 2 levels: 1) he’s certain he’ll receive an excellent education this fall; and 2) he’s certain of how his school plans to educate him this fall.

Notre Dame announced plans not only to bring students back to campus this fall but also to bring them back two weeks early on August 10th, forgoing their fall break and sending students home early ending the semester before Thanksgiving, thereby mitigating the impact of the projected second wave of coronavirus predicted to spread this fall. They are among the first colleges to announce a concrete plan for the fall. The California State system, on the other hand, is planning to move forward with online-only education for the fall semester, while the University of California system has yet to decide.

Not all colleges and universities are planning with the same certainty. The Chronicle of Higher Education is curating a current list of schools and their plans to re-open: 67% planning to reopen; 6% planning for remote; 6% planning for hybrid; and 21% still waiting to decide. It’s a challenging time to make plans and prepare, without uniform guidelines and policies school to school. Most colleges have said they are creating contingency plans for a variety of options as things remain in flux.

I hope to see—whether remote, in-person, or hybrid—a round of freshmen seminars this fall cleverly titled: “Contingency, Relativity, Uncertainty: Planning in the Age of COVID-19,” or maybe “Hybridity & Humanism: The Student Who Was Both There & Not There.” We’re hoping our students can eventually still find humor and healthy perspective amidst all this turbulence.

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

Legal Upshot of AP At-Home Testing

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

As expected, consequences follow from College Board’s AP exams issues last week. Students are participating in a class action lawsuit against the College Board.

The Complaint
According to the lawsuit, as many as 20% of students who attempted to test in the first 3 days of AP testing last week were unable to upload their answers. College Board has claimed that fewer than 1% had issues; it’s not clear yet how either party reached those claims. In addition to uploading problems, some students were unable to log in or were timed out. The suit also raised equity issues, including concerns that low-income students might be unable to access a suitable location, device, or internet access to participate in the exams on the same footing as their higher-income peers. The College Board has faced many lawsuits in the past, including one filed in December 2019 regarding their policies on sales of student data. They plan to contest the AP testing lawsuit, as those students impacted last week are eligible to retest in June. General counsel for College Board described the lawsuit as “a PR stunt masquerading as a legal complaint.”

Lessons Learned
As we move forward into an increasingly digital learning world, the cautionary tale of AP tells us the importance of planning for equity and access issues in advance of any major shifts in programming. Students strongly requested the administration of at-home AP tests, but College Board’s updated protocols to allow emailed-in responses one week into exams suggests that not all concerns around delivery were addressed prior to the beginning of exams. Should at-home tests for ACT and SAT be necessary into the fall, it will be important that those issues are taken into account prior to testing.

In addition, ACT and College Board will have to take responsibility for technological failure (such as issues with outdated browsers or internet connection) when administering high stakes tests at home. They may be able to incorporate some lessons from other tests that have gone online this spring (like high school and graduate school entrance exams), which are using proctoring software systems as well as staggered testing windows to address some of these obstacles. The situation is still unfolding and we will continue to update you.

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

COVID Slide Research from ACT

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

One of the values of standardized testing is predictive data – years upon years of correlating test performance with grade-level performance in high school and college courses. In its May research and policy brief, ACT shares its student performance estimates based on this historical data and predicts the impact of school closures on ACT performance. Some key takeaways below:

The Impact of In-School vs. Out-of-School
The table below summarizes the research on typical per-month gains for students in-school versus out-of-school:

What does it add up to?
Typically, an ACT composite score increases by 1.96 points over a school year and decreases by 0.43 points over the summer–a net gain of 1.53 points per year. By shifting two months of classroom instruction to typical summer losses, the students would instead see a net gain of only 0.82 points per year. While this may seem to be a relatively small effect, this decrease may indicate a large effect on overall student achievement and college readiness, admissions, and scholarship eligibility across districts and states.

ACT goes on to model a number of scenarios–including early starts to the school year and e-learning options offered by schools–and estimates their eventual impact on ACT growth. We’re taking this data in combination with other research on “COVID slide” and learning loss to ensure that students working with our instructors don’t lose ground at this time.

This initiative is bolstered by ACT’s research; they found that English and Math–two more skill-based subjects–tend to suffer most over the summer. English is typically the area where Academic Approach students see the most significant gains, and we’re using the extra time we have now to dig further into math through targeted modules to ensure students stay on track. Moreover, we’ve seen the importance of continued academic support during summer months in our own research; last school year, our students testing in the fall saw the greatest growth from their diagnostic ACT test.

We will keep you informed as further analysis of this data arises. Do let me know if you’d like more information about the new math modules. We are here to help.

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

AP Testing: Take 2

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

After the highly publicized issues with administering AP exams last week, College Board is rolling out a back-up plan for AP submissions this week. In response to the problems with outdated browsers and other uploading errors, the College Board has announced a contingency plan should students experience submission issues and that they will be refunding students that had technical difficulties should they decide not to retest.

Back-up Plan: Email Protocol
Students who experienced issues last week will still need to take a makeup test, but for this week, if students have submission issues, they will be able to email a unique email address. This new protocol will help students testing this week and going forward, should they encounter issues. It seems likely this new option is a direct result of advocacy by students, parents, and educators.

Equity & Access
An important story that has yet to be fully reported relates to access for low-income students. We know from our school partners that primarily low-income students are having access issues far more profound and pervasive than the relatively small percentage of tech issues that are being highly publicized. 

Some partners are indicating far fewer than half of their students that planned to take AP tests are actually taking and submitting them.  This experience will need to be studied, reported, and accounted for in the weeks ahead.

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

Student Voices on Adapting to a New Routine

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

We’ve reflected this week on some of the challenges students have encountered in the first broad rollout of remote, online testing with College Board’s AP testing. We’ve also read with interest this great piece in the NYTimes on how students are adapting to remote learning. Some interesting thoughts from students quoted in the piece on challenges adapting to the new routine:

  • I did not realize that I took my routine and school day for granted until now.
  • I also find it very hard to find an ‘escape’ from school. Since it all takes place at my home, de-stressing has become more difficult because I feel like school is there with me the entire day.
  • It’s easier for me to get distracted and be lazy with my work, so I’m starting to hate the daily mundanity of distance learning.
  • Far more distractions — my pet and the availability of food all the time, to name a few — abound as I try to remain engaged in classes and complete assignments. For the most part I am on task, but some of the very same distractions I deal with in school, such as receiving texts from friends or my phone serving as a distraction in and of itself — seem much harder to resist at home.

We’re also hearing that students are feeling increased academic stress and need for rigorous instruction:

  • As a junior, I have been very stressed about how the rest of the school year will pan out. Constant thoughts running through my head are, “When am I going to take the SAT? How harshly are AP exams going to be graded now? What are colleges going to do for admissions next year?” All of these questions are constant thoughts that most teenagers my age are thinking about right now.
  • The work that we are being provided with now is only supplementary, which does not help students stay motivated to get their work completed. Teachers are doing the best they can but the ones who truly care about their students’ mental health and education are putting in extra time just to help.

All these quotes reflect key elements in what we’ve shared with you in the past weeks on social-emotional learning, executive functioning, and learning loss; they are already realities for students. We’re working to support our students in building routines and systems to create the space for learning while also providing rigorous, personalized academic content for our students.

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

The AP Online Experience: Troubles and Troubleshooting

Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

We’re hearing more stories from you of successes and challenges with this week’s rollout of Advanced Placement (AP) tests. In particular, students taking the AP Calculus AB and BC on May 12th reported issues with system lag and uploading. Some are attributing these troubles to College Board’s servers, while College Board attributes them largely to outdated browsers.

We keep learning, especially lessons on tech troubleshooting and questions of appropriate student conduct.

Tech Troubles & Troubleshooting
The College Board has provided a useful tech troubleshooting page here and continues to promote their 5-step preparation protocol. However, the greatest concern for those who struggled with uploading answers are whether or not they’ll be forced to retest, even when in some cases they have time-stamped photos of their completed work.

Questions of Appropriate Student Conduct
The College Board has given guidance on what is considered acceptable open-book test behavior. And they’ve been clear about their standards of cheating. Nevertheless, reports of cheating rise as both an AP-specific phenomenon and a general trend in online testing.

Again, all these questions must and will lead to solutions eventually. Online testing has been here, is here, and will continue to be here on a larger scale going forward. This week’s AP tests have the dubious honor of serving as a unique national spectacle that centralizes these concerns in one intense period of uncharted territory for our students.

We encourage our students to remain flexible and resilient and to take the high road as they navigate this road toward higher ed.

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

AP rollout–and lessons learned

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

Advanced Placement (AP) exams continue their rollout in digital form. We continue to learn a lot, especially re: 1) online administration best practices; 2) questions concerning student conduct; and 3) the inexhaustible humor of adolescents, even under quarantine.

Online administration best practices
Students are reporting challenges with iPhone/iPad technology. College Board has provided some useful guidance to address that here and other day-of tips here. And be certain to arrive 30 minutes before scheduled tests. 

Student conduct 
Online search trends around yesterday’s US Government test (300,000 students tested) tell an interesting story of how students are using google searches under the College Board’s provision that “open notes” are allowed. Students posted a number of snapshots showing key content from the test appearing heavily on Google searches. See below for a few examples.

The inexhaustible humor of adolescents, even under quarantine 
After the AP Government test, students took to Twitter to air their feelings and insights creatively, sarcastically, and irreverently. Twitter is their current way to grouse in the hallway after a major test, so we can’t begrudge them that. We’re seeing many students respond on social media apps like Reddit and Discord as well. Students should be careful, though–College Board is carefully monitoring those sites to ensure students aren’t engaging in any cheating or prohibited behaviors. 

Focusing on opportunities
With all these lessons learned, we continue to focus on the opportunities ahead: 1) helping students successfully navigate new protocols for testing; 2) encouraging students to maintain the highest standards of personal responsibility and accountability as they test; and 3) focusing on the value concepts and skills that students can be learning to bring them success both on and beyond the test. 

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

AP Exams Begin with Controversy

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) online testing opened today and the controversies mount, ranging from issues with technology to questions of student conduct to matters of equity.

AP Physics launched today with some challenges. While College Board’s demo is clear and logical on the AP Coronavirus page, College Board reports that 2% of students had trouble with upload. Many teachers took to Twitter to voice concerns: teacher after teacher after teacher

Student Conduct
Concerns have been raised about the heightened potential for cheating with at-home testing. Given the way the exams are administered, there is nothing save our students’ personal integrity (which is everything) to keep them from being on a group call with friends collaborating on answers. Students should review College Board’s security violation FAQs.

Possibly the biggest concern about AP testing (and all at-home testing) is equity. Beyond just access to a reliable device and internet access, many low-income students might not have a quiet, secure place to test. Since AP completion can mean credit for college courses low-income students would otherwise have to pay for, their lack of access has real financial consequences.

What’s Next?
Despite these glitches, offering these tests at all was a major accomplishment by College Board–and was overwhelmingly requested by AP students who wanted the opportunity to demonstrate their learning from the year. We’ll be eager to see how tests proceed the rest of this week.

We are hopeful we can find a way as an education system to maintain academic rigor and continuity with reliable, equitable access as we continue to navigate at-home learning. We tell our students mistakes are opportunities to learn, and there is no learning without the analysis of error, but the key to this is the commitment to analysis and a thorough process of correction.

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

A Few Updates on the ACT and AP Exams

Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

To close out the week, we wanted to share with you a few test updates on the ACT and AP testing.

ACT Updates
Per a webinar this week, final decisions on the June test date will be made on a test-site-by-test-site basis and will be confirmed by May 22. As of right now, students can switch their registration from June to July for no change fee if they desire, and the June ACT registration deadline is today, May 8. The representative from ACT said they were hopeful that many test sites could proceed in June and were very confident that the July test date will proceed.

ACT is still planning to roll out section retesting and online (test-center based) testing this fall, which will give students the opportunity to take one, two, or three sections rather than a full ACT test. Students must have taken a full-length ACT after September 2016 in order to be eligible for section retesting. Registration for September testing will open in July.

Online, at-home testing will be rolled out in late fall/early winter, so it may not be a great option for many juniors to wait, especially if they are applying early. September, October, and December ACT tests are currently scheduled normally. Assuming measures are in place to test safely, we encourage students to plan to test in person.

AP Exams
With AP exams kicking off next week, College Board has released a demo version of AP Practice Tests for students to practice with their online testing platform. Type in “PRACTICE” as your AP ID to access this tool. More info here.

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

Further Opportunities to Prevent the COVID Slide in Math

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

Today, we’re sharing two more math pathways we’ve designed to support higher-level math students. Both target the math content students are encountering in sophomore and junior year math courses.

Algebra II for College-Level Rigor
Instructors build on skills commonly taught in Algebra II courses. This includes challenging skills that are needed for tough ACT/SAT questions and college readiness, including nonlinear equations, factoring, solving quadratic equations, and conics. An in-depth understanding of these topics is critical for progressing to the next level of math, and we want to ensure that students are ready to move beyond Algebra II.

Advanced Number Topics
This pathway focuses on broader topics that are included in many precalculus curricula. These skills allow students to fully understand advanced number properties—and what they can and cannot do with these numbers. The foundations of these skills are crucial to success in college level math and STEM classes. Some topics instructors may include complex numbers, logarithms, trigonometry, matrices, and vectors as well as an overview of discrete math and rational/irrational numbers.

We hope these math module overviews have been helpful to you in considering how to best support your students as they continue to progress through math courses this spring and prepare to return to higher-level math courses next school year!

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

Preventing the COVID Slide in Math Skills

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

We’ve shared some of the research with you that’s directed us to develop new, personalized math modules for our students. Today and tomorrow, I wanted to give you some insight into on how we’re digging into specific math concepts to support student learning and growth—filling gaps they may have missed, supporting the work they’re doing now, and preparing them to return to school ready for higher-level math. These short pathways engage students for eight hours to deeply understand a specific set of topics.

Math in the Real World
Instructors work with students on math skills that they will use for their entire lives and are crucial for college readiness. These skills foster critical thinking and allow students to analyze and interpret a variety of data distributions and models. Students will dive deeply into statistics, probability, and data representation. Learn more from this podcast episode that digs into the importance—and under-representation—of data analysis skills in today’s math curriculum for successful critical thinkers.

Mathematical Foundations
Often, skills that are learned when students are younger will fade if not practiced or built upon. This pathway focuses on skills that would have been covered before a student enters their high school math classes and will still be used in their future math careers. It includes essential skills like ratios and proportional thinking, unit conversions, percents, and linear equations. Student understanding of these topics will extend to the higher levels of rigor needed to be successful in high school and college math.

Tomorrow, we’ll share with you two more courses we’ve developed designed for higher-level math students.

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

Math & the COVID Slide

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

We know that focusing first on having students engaged in their own well-being is essential to giving them the brain space to focus on academic growth. Today, we’re digging further into the challenge and opportunities for students in academics, specifically math.

The Challenge: COVID Slide
Many parents and schools are growing increasingly concerned about the impact of learning loss this spring and summer. School districts have had varying levels of success engaging students, with many reporting low attendance and engagement with remote learning. These challenges are exacerbated by inequities in access to remote learning, including devices and connectivity concerns for low-opportunity students. In addition, many schools and districts are forgoing traditional grading and retention policies–meaning students will be moving into the next grade in the fall, regardless of their end of year progress. The increased time out of school has led to research predicting increased losses in foundational skills for students returning in the fall, which they are calling “COVID slide.” Current research predicts students may retain only 50% of the gains they made in math this year. Moreover, math–especially high-school level math–may be content parents are least comfortable in teaching and supporting their children.

The Opportunity
Teachers know this challenge is coming–and many of our nation’s excellent teachers will be working hard over the summer to prepare for just this situation. In addition, the time off gives our students the opportunity to really engage in meaningful inquiry into topics that interest them; outside of the traditional school structure, they may choose to treat this time as an opportunity for independent study into the abundant learning resources available online. We’re developing new, personalized math courses to support our students in maintaining and deepening their math knowledge to prepare for the next school year. We’ll be sharing more details on these courses tomorrow.

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

Maintaining Math Progress during School Closures

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues: 

First off, as we begin Teacher Appreciation Week, a huge THANK YOU to our TEACHERS, who are working so hard and so creatively to keep our students engaged. The value of high quality teachers—if it went underappreciated—will emerge from all this forever elevated.

As a parent, I’m impressed by the effort and creativity of my own children’s teachers to help them maintain academic progress and stay engaged. As an educator, I’m impressed by the rapid innovations at schools, adapting and evolving quickly to maintain academic progress.

One area of instruction—and the current innovations in teaching it—that interests us most is math. Personally, it’s the homeschool topic du jour in my house. I’m seeing my children’s teachers utilize a range of tech platforms and creative project-based learning assignments to keep math learning engaged and visible. Professionally, it’s the subject that our data show require the greatest supplemental support to advance significantly.

We’ll be spending this week with math on our minds, sharing research and some instructional solutions we’ve designed to help.

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

Video Interview: Peter Rastrelli

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

Today, I’m excited to share with you my interview with Dr. Peter Rastrelli. We spoke about executive functions, impacts of COVID-19 on student learning and routines, and the best ways to support students learning at home. I hope you enjoy our conversation. 

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

Special Considerations with Executive Functions

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

Today, we focus on special considerations as we we continue this week’s theme of executive functions, a set of behavioral skills related to the work of planning and prioritizing that are essential for academic success. Once again, our colleagues at Psychoeducational Resource Services, Peter Rastrelli, Tonya Gall, and Josh Price, have contributed the following:

Are there differences to expect based on ages, and if so, what should we be aware of?
Absolutely. While these skills are always developing, those middle to high schoolers can be a bit harder to work with…that said, the younger students will probably need more 1:1 support, at least getting started.

  • Break down tasks into manageable pieces and then let them work independently of the pieces. With the younger student, help initiate the task but then back off. This gives them space to grow and also teaches patience.
  • While all students seem to enjoy connecting, it seems the older students are eager to see familiar faces. Encourage them to connect with the teachers or mentors. Even connecting with a peer can be motivational and productive.

Find out what the teacher-student contact options are. Schools are making a significant effort to keep students and teachers connected. Try having your student create a list of questions they can ask at the same time rather than each time a question comes up. They may even figure out an answer before asking for help. But getting the question down is what’s key.

What about students with special needs?
It’s important to do what’s possible to maintain the progress that was being made. We know that students with special needs or IEPs are among the most vulnerable at this time.

Find out if there were specific programs that were being used for reading, math, or whatever area, and what can be used at home. Continue to work collaboratively with your school team and private team if you happen to have one. Reach out to the professionals to monitor the student’s progress. Some of this can be done with video conferencing.

Be extremely positive. When students apply a new strategy with success, point it out specifically (“I like the way…..”). A great question to ask is, “How exactly did you do this?” It allows you to better understand of where they are cognitively and helps them internalize their own strategy, which will create a greater likelihood of repeating the desired behavior(s).

When a student asks for help, resist the urge to correct everything. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Remember students don’t turn in perfect work at school, and they should not as we acquiesce to this new e-learning setting.

Tomorrow, we’ll post our video interview with Dr. Peter Rastrelli.

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

Specific Tools to Support Executive Functions

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

Today, we continue this week’s focus on executive functions, a set of behavioral skills related to the work of planning and prioritizing that are essential for academic success. Our colleagues at Psychoeducational Resource Services, Peter Rastrelli, Tonya Gall, and Josh Price, have contributed the following suggestions on specific tools to use:

1) Some simple tool suggestions include:

  • Whiteboards (small ones) are a must
  • Countdown timers (they are on your phone, but you can buy physical ones too)
  • Use checkboxes or lists to check off or cross out completed items
  • Pencil-in breaks, and be sure to provide good activity choices for those breaks (not a video game that will take 40 minutes). A reasonable break should include some sort of physical activity and one that easily allows the students to transition back to the learning process. 

2) The climate in your house is important to consider:

  • Where do the students work? In what room is most effective?
  • What materials will your students need in front of them to effectively carry out their work? 

3) Schedule-making can be a learning process:

  • For the students 3rd grade and up, create a schedule with your student that allows them to understand what it means, how to use, and when to take breaks. Then, work out what the break schedule looks like.
  • Allow the students to see the whole picture and then help break down the day into baby steps.
  • Keep in mind a narrative script you can use when your student comes to you to and asks for help. You don’t have to respond to their immediate needs.

4) Make problem-solving an open conversation:

  • Helping a student problem-solve is part of strengthening executive functioning – the student goes from being told a strategy to working through the frustration process independently.
  • Prepare students with questions they can ask themselves in order to find the solution (i.e., is it posted on the site, did I ask a friend first, etc.).
  • If they need to contact the teacher, try to have the kids create that email themselves and involve them directly in the dialogue. This helps to also create good advocacy skills. Remind students that if teachers do not respond within a timely manner, that they, too, might be a parent or someone who is taking care of loved ones during this shelter in place time. Patience!

These executive functioning strategies support all students in both mindsets and availability to learn, and echo many of the e-learning best practices we build into our instruction. Tomorrow’s letter will focus on special considerations re: executive functioning.

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

Executive Functions for Students

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

This week, we’re focusing on the theme of executive functions, a set of behavioral skills related to the work of planning and prioritizing. These skills are essential for academic success, and may be especially important to develop as students break from their usual learning routines. Our letters today through Wednesday are drawn from conversations with our colleagues at Psychoeducational Resource Services (PRS). These letters will culminate Thursday with my interview Dr. Peter Rastrelli, a PRS founder.

What are executive functions and why do they matter?
Peter Rastrelli: Executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal: essentially, they relate to the Problem Solving Process. This might include our thinking or acting but can also involve our emotions.

Tonya Gall: Executive functioning in simple terms is being able to pay attention long enough carry out or “execute” goal-directed behaviors. It taps our thoughts, behaviors and emotions. As adults, we’ve established these skills (and are still learning at times!), but for our kids, these skills will continue to develop over time, well into early adulthood. It can be a challenge if we don’t know where we fall along that continuum. It’s important to understand where our kids fall along this spectrum too.

What are basic steps parents and educators can take to support executive functions of their students, now that school is taking place at home?
Josh Price: Structure is key with a designated school space, routine, and resources all in one place. Have the student create a daily checklist of what needs to be accomplished for that day and then a section for projects or assignments that are more long term. Set up time frames for tasks and use a timer if needed. Build in times for movement and breaks. Even with older students they have movement when transitioning from one class to the next, so sitting for two hours straight can be hard to do especially when there is no social interaction taking place.

Peter Rastrelli: Empower the child. Realize they know a ton about how things go at school. Use that knowledge! Give them agency in choosing and creating structure.

Tomorrow’s letter will focus more on specific tools to help. In addition, I also wanted to share a reminder for educators–we are offering our free webinar this week on e-learning best practices. Head here to register.

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

What will the online testing experience be for students?

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

We first wanted to share with you some new testing information–College Board has scheduled the SAT national test date for September 26. We’ll share more information as it becomes available. Next, we’ve heard many questions from you about the future of online testing, specifically regarding the student’s test-taking experience:

  • Will the online testing experience be substantially different from paper testing?
  • Will students be able to read and reason and problem solve with the same strategies they’ve developed for success on pencil and paper tests?
  • Can they annotate, eliminate, highlight, use calculators, etc.? 

While the features of online testing are a moving target, we’ve gathered a snapshot of their current state of development for their practice tests and listed them below for you. Yes, it will be a new frontier—adjustment will be required—but it is promising that some online features allow students to apply some of the best-practice critical reading and critical reasoning strategies we know lead to test-taking success.

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

The Question of At-Home Testing

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

Your responses to this week’s SAT and ACT updates have focused heavily on questions around at-home testing. We’ve prepared the following FAQs. With information developing daily, we’ll be sure to update these continually:

Why is this option being offered? Is it definitely happening?
Ultimately, the College Board and ACT are responding to the demand for the tests and uncertainty about the ability to offer in-person testing sites in the fall. The test-at-home option ensures students will have an opportunity to test regardless of potential lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, or social distancing restrictions in the fall that may prevent traditional testing setups.

ACT has been pretty definitive that this option WILL be available in late fall/early winter. The College Board has said they will roll out this option for the SAT only if schools do not return in the fall. In both cases, it may be available only regionally in areas where in-person tests cannot be safely administered.

Will there be any changes to test content or construct?
The GMAT, GRE, and SSAT have all stated that the content and construct will be identical to their in-person versions, so it’s likely the SAT and ACT will as well. The only tests that have seen major changes to construct are the AP exams, which eliminated their multiple-choice portions and moved to a shorter, limited number of free-response questions. This seems unlikely for the ACT and SAT as it would be a major departure from existing and validated constructs.

Will they be scored similarly to pencil-and-paper or in-person tests?
Neither the College Board nor ACT has released much detail on scoring for at-home tests. However, both testing agencies have been offering digital tests to schools and districts for some time, and have done studies evaluating the comparability of computer-based and pencil-and-paper tests. Both of them found that students performed better on the computer-based reading sections with minimal differences in the other sections. As a result, they both use a policy of equating: adjusting the scale for the computer-based version of the test to account for these differences. This means students may need to get more questions right on the computer-based version of the test to get the same score as the print version in cases where equating is necessary. It’s possible equating will also be required for the remote proctored version of these tests as well.

Other tests, like the GMAT, GRE, and SSAT (used for graduate or high school admissions) have already gone remote online and have shared more details. The GMAT, for example, uses the same scoring algorithm as the test center-based version. We will update you on any decisions the ACT or College Board announce around scoring.

How will the testing agencies prevent cheating? What will proctoring look like?
One of the major concerns about at-home testing is making it truly fair and ensuring students don’t have the opportunity to get assistance. While the College Board and ACT have not released information about how they will accomplish the goal of a fair and secure tests, some of the tools used may look similar to those on other standardized tests, including:

  • Human proctors monitoring via video camera, which may require occasional 360 degree views of the testing area and use of a mirror or cell phone to display the computer screen
  • Recorded test sessions available for later review
  • Dress requirements, including visible ears to eliminate the possibility of headphones/earbuds or sunglasses
  • Limitations on note taking materials
  • A variety of authentication requirements to prove their identity
  • Downloading secure applications to take the test

ACT has also indicated they are considering options such as allowing students to self-proctor without as many security requirements–but they would have to later take a test to “confirm” the score at a testing center with a proctored test (and presumably score within a similar range).

Without more information available right now, other standardized tests may provide our best information on how online ACT and SAT tests could be made available. We’ll provide more information on the SAT and ACT options as it becomes available.

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

ACT Testing & Timeline Updates

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

Yesterday, we shared the most current SAT updates, and today we focus on the ACT. It’s a rapid time of innovation, so we’ll likely have more updates soon, but these are the most relevant and current in terms of ACT testing and timeline:

Summer Testing Options
The June and July ACT are still proceeding as scheduled at this point. ACT is offering makeup testing dates for the June and July tests—should test centers be unable to open on June 13 or July 18, a makeup test date will be offered a week later on June 20 and July 25, respectively. Students can also switch for free from the June to the July date, if they prefer.

On-Campus Testing
ACT also offers on-campus testing at colleges, and they are emphasizing that this option will continue to be available to students this fall. This allows an individual college or university to administer and ACT test on campus. The score is reportable, but only to that specific college.

In-Home Remote Proctoring
ACT plans to roll out this new option to take the ACT at home in late fall/early winter 2020. They’ve released little information about this option so far, but we expect to see more in the next few weeks.

New Testing Options
As previously announced, ACT is still planning to offer individual section retesting, online testing at national test sites, and superscoring for students who retake the exam starting in September 2020.

Please reach out if we can help you in any way.

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

SAT Testing & Timeline Updates

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

After attending a College Board session, we want to update you with current SAT information. We’ll focus on ACT updates tomorrow. For now, we hope you find this extensive list of relevant SAT updates useful.

National Test Dates
The June SAT was canceled. As a result, they are adding a September SAT. They’re planning to increase the number of testing sites and testing site capacity to satisfy demand and ensure every student can register. These test sites will use the latest social distancing guidelines to ensure the health and safety of students and staff. You can see the full 2020 schedule in College Board’s graphic below.

Students will be able to register for fall test dates by the end of May. Registration will open a week early for the August, September, and October test dates for “high priority” groups: any student who was registered for the June test and any member of the class of 2021 who has not taken an official SAT.

School Day Testing
With all spring school day tests canceled as well, College Board is also adding a school day test date in September in addition to October. They will focus on enrolling schools supporting the 770,000 students that were scheduled to test in the spring through school day testing, but any school or district wishing to offer an in-school SAT can opt into one of these test dates. The October PSAT and PSAT-NMSQT are currently still scheduled for October per usual. See the graphic below from College Board with school day test date information.

Digital SAT Options
College Board has committed to making a digital, at-home SAT available to all students in the event schools do not return in the fall. They have said the test will be simple, secure, fair, and valid for use in college admissions. The test will involve remote proctoring and will build on their previous experience delivering standardized tests remotely. They will also have opportunities for low-income students to request support in meeting the technical requirements to test.

SAT Subject Testing
There are currently no plans to adjust administration of Subject Tests. They will be available in August, October, November, and December–the new September test date will be SAT only. You can see the schedule in College Board’s graphic below.

Please let us know what other questions you have.

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

National SAT Testing Dates

School Day Testing Dates

Some Important FAQs on Testing & Planning

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

We’re receiving, as expected, an influx of questions around test cancellations, rescheduling protocols, and planning. I’ve summarized some of these conversations with families and schools into the list of FAQs below. I hope you find it useful.

When should my juniors, who were planning on taking the SAT in April or June, plan to take the SAT now?
The SAT will be offered monthly starting in August and continuing in September, October, November, December. The College Board is planning a state-wide SAT in IL for public school students in October.

When should my juniors plan to take the ACT?
The June and July ACT dates are still scheduled, with increased flexibility. Even if the June ACT is canceled, the July ACT is definitely still an option for now.

Given the serious health risk that group gatherings present for our students, what will the ACT and SAT do to protect them?
Both ACT and the College Board are developing plans for at-home testing as well as online testing, with proctoring protocols to account for validity of test scores. We’ll keep you posted on these developments.

If the ACT and/or SAT go online, does that mean significant changes in test structure or content, like it did for the online versions of AP exams?
From the early releases of online tests we’ve seen, the test construct and content remains stable. That said, the change to at-home testing will likely involve changes in the way tests are proctored. We’ll keep you updated on any other changes that occur.

Is there a chance my students won’t be able to test at all on the ACT or SAT?
No. With ACT and SAT both confirming at-home options, students will definitively be able to test in the fall! They are also increasing capacity for the late summer/fall testing dates to make sure there is room for everyone.

I notice some colleges are going “test optional.” What does that mean for my students?
Test optional does NOT mean test blind. Test optional colleges and universities are not requiring SAT or ACT scores (in many cases, just for the class of 2021), but they will be considering them as part of the application package. SAT or ACT scores will still be an important way for students to demonstrate college readiness and competitiveness in the applicant field. This certainly presents increased flexibility for the class of 2021 applying to colleges.

Given that students are testing on delayed timelines, what should they be focused on right now?
Since the beginning of school closings, we’ve maintained the same position: we need to be mindful of supporting students’ social-emotional learning, and we need to be mindful of preventing academic learning loss.

First, let’s make sure everyone is safe in order to learn, and that students have the emotional supports to learn. Then, let’s work against academic learning loss. It’s important to keep students practicing math at the right levels of rigor and reading critically at the right levels of rigor. This is why, in particular, we are focusing supplements on math, the subject that suffers the greatest degree of summer learning loss, which may be compounded under present conditions.

What are some school leaders considering?
This is an important time to think creatively about summer programming options, whenever possible, since there will not be an abundance of time to prepare students for fall testing. This is why we are focused with our school partners on using spring testing data to customize summer programming solutions for skills-based instruction and bridge programs to make sure students come back to class prepared to be at grade level.

Please reach out if you have other questions or if we can help in any way.

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

Important SAT Updates from the College Board

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

College Board announced today that they are canceling the June SAT test date. Instead, they are adding a September test date, meaning this year’s juniors will have an opportunity to take the SAT every month this fall from August through December. The actual September date has not yet been released.

SAT Test Details
Students registered for the June SAT and juniors who haven’t yet had an opportunity to take the SAT will get access to early registration for the August, September, and October administrations. Registration for all others will open in May. In addition, schools that were scheduled to take the April SAT will be offered an additional test date in the fall.

ACT Test Details
Meanwhile, the June and July ACT test dates remain scheduled. ACT has indicated that they will be offering late summer/early fall dates to make up for April’s cancelation. If they cancel June or July, there will be an even greater need for these make-up dates.

At-Home Testing
Both ACT and the College Board have announced that should schools not re-open in the fall, they will offer an at-home testing option. We’ll provide more information on these updates as they become available.

Key Takeaway
Students in the class of 2021 can best prepare for college entrance exams–and develop essential college readiness skills–by continuing their academic progress. The most important factor in building college readiness is continuous time spent on academic work at the right level of rigor.

Despite current delays and pauses, let’s maintain academic progress and not lose sight of our collective goal: consistent academic growth.

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

Math in Mind

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

After spending more and more time tutoring my own children in math—and talking to my students about maintaining their math progress—I have math in mind.

Math Facts
New research and projections show us the potential for learning loss in this time frame is significant–especially in math, where students may lose more than half the content they’d learned in the previous year. While our first priority is to support students’ physical and emotional needs, we need to provide the time and space to more effectively learn while at home this spring and summer.

Soon, we will be offering new math enrichment modules from our expert instructors to support our students in retaining their math skills and better preparing to return to school in the fall. We’re also offering free webinars and curriculum materials to schools on the e-learning best practices we’ve developed so that they can support their instructors in developing effective lessons.

Be well,

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Growth Mindset, Covid Mindset

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

I remember serving on District 39’s Community Review Committee (CRC) in 2014-5 when we developed a report on Cultivating Growth-Minded, Resilient Students. It was a great process, affording us the opportunity to gather research, survey parents, and interview experts.

Among the many valuable recommendations was a campaign to educate students about growth-minded thinking throughout our schools. The 10 Growth Mindset Statements below made its way home and has since never left my children’s bulletin boards.

Below that visual I’ve included another–“Who do I want to be during Covid-19?” I find it helpful in reflecting on what our children are currently experiencing through a “fixed mindset” vs. “growth mindset” lens. This visual will be added to bulletin boards today! I hope you find it useful.

Growth Mindset

Covid Mindset

Be well,

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Key Learnings from School Leaders

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

We’ve been inspired by the resilience and adaptability of our colleagues in education. Today, I want to share—among so many—the great insights on distance learning from two of our colleagues at The Glenbard Schools and Loyola Academy. Leaders at these schools, like many of their colleagues, are displaying great sensitivity to the experience and mindsets of their teachers, families, and students in order to maintain continuous academic progress.

What’s working well? What lessons have you learned from the transition?

Principal Charlie Heintz: I am so proud of how our teachers pivoted and how our students responded to the new platform. It has been uplifting to see it in action. What I’ve learned is that students want to be with their peers. They like the online connection, and they also take their studies seriously. Finding the balance between maintaining personal connection and advancing course objectives is key. We implemented a day of “virtual office hours” where teachers were available to answer student questions. Without face-to-face contact, it’s important that we adopt a pace that allows all students to remain current with the material.

Assistant Director Patrick McGill: Throughout this time I have been reminded that we have some of the best teachers in the world teaching at Glenbard. Their dedication and commitment to supporting their students and helping them learn during this time is inspirational. I am also so grateful to work with such a talented administrative staff at each of our schools who have worked tirelessly to support our students and teachers during this time. Without their hard work and talent, we would not be having the success we see today.

What are you still working on improving, and what additional resources do you need?

Principal Heintz: We initially believed that e-learning was for two weeks; we now know it is much longer. In our planning, we need to shift from a sprinter’s stride to a marathoner’s. We need to find the balance and recognize that “doing school” from home has challenges for our teachers and our students. Our teachers are also home schooling their own children, and many of our students are caring for their siblings.

Assistant Director McGill: As in anything, we continue to find new challenges to overcome during this E-Learning period. We are fortunate to have the talent within our district to make these problems seem relatively small. However, one thing that continues to be on my mind is working to ensure our students are learning the essential skills in their classes to prepare them for their future. At some point this will all be over, and we want to ensure that our students are prepared to hit the ground running.

There is much to be gained from learning how effective leaders cultivate academic mindsets in their communities—as well as display empathy for the experiences of their teachers and families. We believe their great work is transitive—from school leader to teacher to parent to student to our collective, ultimate goal: continuous academic progress.

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

Academic Mindsets

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

This week, we’ve discussed the role of social-emotional learning (SEL) in our academic programming: that it is critical for a student’s mental health and that we have seen evidence that it is leading to better academic outcomes.

Academic Mindsets
How, exactly, do students take their social-emotional skills and use them to promote their academic progress? The development of academic mindsets in students is key. These mindsets refer to students’ beliefs about their own abilities in the academic world. Research showed that strong academic mindsets were linked closely with other SEL factors, including social skills, academic perseverance, and learning strategies. These factors then had a significant impact on students’ GPAs. The research showed that stronger academic mindsets–that is, stronger beliefs in a student’s own ability to learn and grow–led, concretely, to better academic growth.

How do we help?
We work with our students to ensure that we’re not only teaching skills but also teaching students how to learn and how to believe in their own ability to learn. We’d recommend this resource for parents and this resource for educators from the Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS) on developing mindsets in students, which we’ve seen have powerful impact in the classroom.

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

AP Exam Updates & Academic Preparation

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

The shift to at-home learning has brought many unexpected challenges and changes. College Board released substantial details late last week on the implementation of AP tests including the schedule for testing and more details about the structure of the tests themselves. We’re diving into how academic preparation and social-emotional learning may relate to these testing updates.

What are the major changes?
Most AP exams will be given in timed testing sessions lasting 45 minutes (plus an additional 5 minutes for students to upload their responses). Students may choose to upload typed or handwritten responses to each question (most tests will include two), and students will get access to the testing system 30 minutes prior to the test to get set up. Unlike past AP tests, these tests will be open-book and open-note. They will be less focused on memorization or easily searchable content and instead focused on critical thinking and analysis tasks.

AP teachers will actually get access to students’ responses shortly after the testing window (by May 26) so they can see how their students performed. Teachers may also elect to use these exams for additional graded material in the classes. Allowing teachers to view student responses is also among many new security measures in place to prevent cheating.

How can students prepare academically?
We’re working with our students to ensure they have not only a deep understanding of the content but also the critical thinking skills to be successful in this new format. Much of our curriculum for test preparation incorporates close reading, citing evidence, critical thinking, and drawing logical and relevant conclusions–all skills that will be essential for students to successfully complete these exams and be prepared for college level curriculum. In the absence or adjustment of grades for spring of junior year, these AP scores may be even more important in demonstrating student learning from this school year.

How does social-emotional learning relate?
Students will face many unexpected challenges in this new testing format–an unexpected environment, very tightly timed reading and writing tasks, higher-level thinking tasks, and limited opportunities to demonstrate knowledge. The self-awareness, self-management, and decision-making skills developed through strong social-emotional learning programming will be essential to student success on these tasks. Students preparing for these exams need not only to review the content–they also need to prepare for the rigors of the task and test itself. We’re working with students to ensure they’re prepared for all aspects of these assessments.

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

What Does Attendance Mean?

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

What does it mean to “attend” school under a stay-at-home order? As a parent, for me, it has come to mean that I must sign my students in every morning in response to an attendance email from their schools. In addition, my students must submit certain assignments by the end of the day.

But if we think of attendance not only as physical presence but also as engaged learning, then it becomes harder to assess. To attend school now in an engaged, motivated way does rest more heavily than ever on the student—and the student’s social-emotional learning skills.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) programming in schools has been proven to improve social, learning, and mindset skills in students (Durlak, et al. 2011)—but can SEL programming help students academically while they are learning from home and support their intrinsic motivation? We believe so. SEL has two broad goals:

  • SEL improves students’ skills in areas of self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship management, and responsible decision-making (Elias, et al. 2008).
  • SEL fosters the ongoing development of those skills through the creation and maintenance of a safe, caring learning environment in the classroom and school.

It’s clear that these two goals are valuable on their own; students with these skills and environments are more successful in many ways. Importantly, though, development of these social-emotional skills can also create more engaged learners. The University of Chicago Consortium for School Research hypothesized that certain SEL factors efficiently contribute to key academic behaviors: attendance in class, doing homework, organizing materials, participating and studying for class, and other engagement in instructional activities (Farrington, et al. 2012). Students with stronger SEL skills, thus, are more likely to be “attending” school in an engaged manner while learning from home.

We’ll be focused on sharing SEL engagement strategies with parents and educators this week.

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

We Heard You: Our E-Learning Resources

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

It’s been wonderful hearing from so many of you over the past couple of weeks. We’ve been listening and have worked as a team to develop a library of brand new college-readiness and test preparation resources. We are now making this e-learning resource page available to you complimentary.

On this page, you’ll find:

  • E-Learning resources for educators and families on best practices
  • Presentations for families on choosing between the ACT and SAT
  • Workshops for students preparing the ACT and SAT
  • SAT toolkits for teachers preparing their students
  • FAQs, updates, and other helpful links

We hope you find these resources useful in helping your families, colleagues, and students maintain academic progress while schools remain closed. Please reach out if we can support you in any additional ways.

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

A Proactive Approach to E-Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

I’m proud today to share some inspiring insights from Principal Charlie Heintz of Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL. Like many, he, his faculty, and their students and families have rapidly transitioned to e-learning, and his insights reveal a thoughtful, rational, and proactive approach. Adjusting to e-learning as effectively as possible is key for students to continue essential academic progress. Today, I’m sharing his thoughts about expectations for students and teachers. Next week, we’ll follow up with more from him and other school leaders about early successes and lessons from these transitions.


What are the primary goals or objectives you have for students and teachers while schools are not in session?
Our primary objective is to continue teaching and learning. The e-learning format presents many challenges. I have asked our teachers to balance content with connection. It’s important to remember that school is social, and students need a community to support them during these times.

What are your expectations for teachers?
Many of our teaching expectations haven’t changed. Teachers are being asked to follow the same learning targets and curricular outcomes of their courses. That said, we have amended our bell schedule, so teachers do not nearly have the same amount of time to cover material. We are asking teachers and department chairs to re-calibrate the content so it covers the most essential learnings of the course.

What structures or routines are you providing for students? How are you communicating with them?
We kept our usual schedule (six day, rotating cycle) but reduced the minutes in class period from 55 minutes to 30 minutes. Each e-learning day has six periods with ten minutes between periods. An e-learning school day runs from 10am to 2pm.

Keeping the daily bell schedule has been well received. It provides students with a familiar rhythm. Additionally, we send out a morning message at 6am with announcements for the day and an afternoon message with our daily prayer. Our Student Activities Office provides contests and online events for continued engagement. Submissions and winners are posted on Instagram.

Charlie Heintz
Principal, Loyola Academy
P: 847-920-2405


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

Making the Best of a Disrupted School Year

Dear Academic Approach Families and Colleagues:

We are happy to share with you some words of wisdom from a great colleague of ours, Dr. Lionel Allen. We started working with Dr. Allen almost a decade ago at Urban Prep Academies as we helped build out their 9th-11th grade ACT student assessment program and a professional development program for their faculty. Dr. Allen has ever since remained a colleague and a friend; he currently provides coaching to school leaders seeking to develop the impact of their schools on student achievement and college readiness:


With closures extended in Illinois and New York, it is quite possible that students will not return to brick and mortar schools this year. This means that much of the responsibility for maintaining academic progress this school year will fall on parents and families. Undoubtedly, many of you have established tight routines while other families are still searching for a rhythm. Regardless of your circumstances, please consider the following:

  1. Be grateful. Despite the stress and uncertainty, we all have something to be thankful for (our health, our support networks, provisions, etc.). Expressing gratitude at this moment can help ward off negativity and give us the strength to charge forward as we journey through uncharted territory.
  2. Establish a routine that works for you. Social media is abuzz with COVID-19 daily schedules. While these can be great resources for families, they may not work for you and your family. You may need to start your day later, shorten learning times, or incorporate more frequent breaks. What works for some families may not work for others, and that is OK.
  3. Set realistic expectations. This is not the time to be laser-like focused on outcomes. Do the best you can to follow the remote learning plans offered by your district, but give yourself permission to struggle and even fail. We are all adjusting to this new normal. Even if you are a trained educator, teaching your own children is a daunting task (this is why teachers send their children to school). Do not put undue pressure on yourself.

Dr. Lionel Allen, Jr.
Founder, ed Leaders Matter
P: 312-860-9324
T: @eLM_Coach


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

Changes in High School Rites of Passage

Dear Academic Approach Families:

For over 20 years, the college admissions cycle for juniors and seniors has been very predictable. You could set your watch by it, but now those predictable rites of passage have changed, and so have the experiences of our students.

Not Your Typical Senior or Junior Year
With the dizzying array of changes to college testing and admissions in the last month, juniors and seniors are finding that their experiences this spring are defying their expectations and they may be struggling to process the impact of those changes on their own college admissions planning.

Senior Year College Decisions
Seniors are facing a very different decision-making process from what they may have anticipated. College admissions decisions were released in the last few months, and students are now facing deadlines to commit to schools (and submit deposits) without the benefit of admitted student visit days and with increasing uncertainty about completion of their senior year. NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) is providing a great resource to students that tracks the availability of tours, adjusted deposits, and changed enrollment deadlines by school. Many colleges are exploring creative options like virtual tours and video chats with students or admissions officers to get a sense of a school’s fit.

Opportunities for Juniors
While the cancellation of April ACT and May SAT test dates may have thrown a wrench in many students’ plans for college applications, the extra time can actually provide an unexpected benefit: more dedicated time to consider their own readiness for college, assess their skills, and better prepare for college entrance exams as well as college-level work.

What’s Most Important
We’re continue to focus on student learning in this time and innovating around key questions:

How do we ensure students maintain their progress during this school year?
How do we keep students on track with challenging material and instruction so they are successful when they return to school and move on to college?
We’ll continue to share our insights and the insights of our colleagues on these topics in forthcoming letters.

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

School Districts Shift to Remote Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

Spring break is at an end in my household, as my children shift back to remote learning. We’re doing our best to advance and adapt, as are the school districts we work with.

Shifting to Remote Learning
With weeks now of school closures and no clear end in sight, schools are looking at longer-term plans. There’s been wide variation in what districts and schools are providing to students and families, with a large proportion providing access to resources but no direct instruction.

Next Steps for Districts
As districts move into this remote learning, each is taking into consideration the needs of its students and their access to technology. This week, for example, Chicago Public Schools rolled out its Remote Learning Plan, which will begin with instruction following Spring Break on April 13. The district is working to provide devices to more high-need students, adjusting its policies to allow schools to incorporate best-practice tools like Zoom, and delivering packets of enrichment work for families to engage in with their students.

Similar moves were taken last week by the New York Department of Education, distributing devices to students that did not have them and allowing educators to take an approach that best worked for their students. Though the first day was rocky, students adapted quickly and so far, educators seem to be adapting quickly.

What’s Most Important
We’re staying focused on student learning in this time and innovating around key questions:

  • How do we ensure students maintain their progress during this school year?
  • How do we keep students on track with challenging material and instruction so they are successful when they return to school and move on to college?

We’ll be sharing our insights and the insights of our colleagues on these topics in forthcoming letters.

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

Gratitude and Resilience

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we head into the weekend—2 weeks into social distancing—the value of resilience is on my mind. Resilience has always been a critical non-cognitive factor in the success of our students: those who can persevere through challenging content and the most rigorous problem solving continue to grow academically—and emotionally.

The Power of Gratitude

Over the past several years, we’ve partnered with the University of Chicago to develop a strategy toolkit for students to reduce anxiety and increase resilience. One of our favorite tools is showing gratitude. While this may sound trite, neuroscience research proves that feeling gratitude directly leads to decreasing stress and increasing positive thinking. Moreover, those with increased positive thinking have increased ability for creative and flexible thought and are more able to learn and cope with anxiety.

The Joy Collector

I’ll be encouraging my family and other families to start a concrete practice of writing down the joys—no matter how small—that we are grateful for each day in a Joy Collector journal. I’m also expressing my gratitude for those joys directly to those who bring joy. These practices are especially important right now in helping us to keep anxiety as low as possible and engage us in the process of building resilience through unexpected challenges.

Further reading

I particularly enjoyed this article that contextualizes the research showing the importance of demonstrating gratitude for our own mental health. I’d love to hear the strategies you are implementing with your own families to support them; please reach out and share those suggestions.

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

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As an educator, I’ve always been aware of my impact not only on the academic progress of my students but also on their positive mindsets and attitudes as they navigate challenging circumstances and unexpected hurdles.

Social-Emotional Learning

Seeing our students develop successfully on and beyond the test has always been central to our work. We’ve dug deep into the evidenced-based practices of social and emotional learning (SEL) through our research and partnerships, and our instruction incorporates the core elements of SEL: improving students’ self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, decision making, and relationship management. Students with strong social emotional skills often find greater academic success. They’re also more equipped to face and overcome challenges they encounter in all aspects of life.

Supporting Social-Emotional Learning at Home

Teaching SEL helps our students face challenges and builds resilience to thrive in the months ahead. With schools either closed or shifted to e-learning, SEL is all the more important to emphasize at home. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has put together a great resource page for families and educators to help incorporate SEL as they support students during challenging times.

Share Your Recommendations

We’ll continue to share ways to support our students and prepare them for the challenges ahead. Have any recommendations for SEL, games and activities, or student support? Send them my way.

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

Positive, Personalized Mentoring — at a Distance

Dear Academic Approach Families:

I definitely miss meeting my students in person. I miss greeting them with a handshake or a high five, sitting down across the table and warming up to our session’s topic first with some relevant small talk:

“How did that AP US History paper go?” “How was the dress rehearsal?” “I heard you guys beat [insert rival school]! I already rubbed it in to one of my students from there.”

Social Distancing, Staying Positive, Maintaining Relationships

It’s important to remember that healthy communal aspects of our students’ lives have been disrupted. Creative outlets for self-expression or channeling nervous energy through group activity simply and suddenly ended. Social distancing invariably promotes social isolation. Given what our students are experiencing, it’s important to maintain relationships and continue to cultivate them.

Education isn’t just about academics. It’s also about emotion and connection. My own children have received email from former teachers just checking in, reminding them of great experiences they enjoyed with warm mentors, who still care about their progress and success. This is a time for teachers, coaches, and other mentors to reach out to students – new and old – to encourage and connect.

Mentoring Basics

We’re trying to cling to the basics of mentoring as we Zoom into our students’ lives now. Small talk still matters, because it shows you care and you are familiar. It establishes a continuity of shared experiences when so much right now is discontinuous.

There are still AP US History papers to inquire about. And while the sporting events and rehearsals have ceased for now, there are books to recommend, board games to suggest, and important academic questions to answer that are relevant to the student’s specific needs.

Additional Resources Coming Soon

Stay tuned for additional resources for both educators and students on navigating the e-learning world we now live in. And if you have any recommendations for books, board games, or academic reflections, send them my way.

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

State Testing Waivers & Helping Students Prepare

Dear Academic Approach Families:

Some important updates today that will likely push standardized testing windows further out in terms of time and further encourage the delivery of these tests online.

State Testing Waivers

Since the White House announced that the Federal Department of Education will not enforce state mandated testing School Year 2019-2020, State Boards of Education across the country are seeking to waive state accountability criteria. This will likely mean many schools will not provide federal or district funded end-of-year tests, including the scheduled SAT or ACT provided as part of the school day testing program in spring 2020. It seems likely that schools will offer additional school day test options later this spring or in the fall, and students will also have the option to test on national Saturday test dates once they resume. Currently, the next scheduled national test dates are June 13th for the ACT and June 6th for the SAT.

Helping Schools and Students Prepare

Though much is up in the air for our current juniors in terms of the college admissions timeline, there is plenty of time ahead to ensure they are prepared both for college admissions and college-level coursework. With many students lacking a federally, state, or district-funded college admissions test this school year, they are likely looking for alternative testing dates prior to fall admissions. Students can test well into fall of their senior year and still use that score for consideration in college applications. For regular decision admission, most colleges will accept scores from as late as the December test.

The Future is Online

With ACT’s already planned expansion of online testing at school-based test sites in September 2020 and College Board’s move to offer secure AP tests in-home in spring 2020, it’s also possible the testing agencies may offer more flexible options to students throughout this summer and fall. We’ll keep you informed of changes as they are announced.

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

The Question of Online Testing and E-Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families:

The theme of this week’s letters will be Online Testing & E-Learning. Two topics today: 1) New federal support for e-learning; and 2) our research and opinion on online testing.

Federal Support for E-Learning

U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education Betsy DeVos issued a statement that schools should be striving to offer distance learning options to students, including those with disabilities or diverse learning needs. While there certainly are questions about which tools to use and how to provide access equitably given the limitations, for example, that Chicago Public School students have on technology usage, we believe that urging schools—as our Federal DOE has—to allow and support remote learning is smart. Some schools are moving quickly, providing detailed schedules and activities for students each week, while others are still determining how to best support their students. Right now, we believe that focusing on how to reach students (even with fewer resources) is the right direction rather than canceling or delaying learning any further.

Research & Opinion on Online Testing

With the limitations put in place by necessary social distancing and stay-at-home measures, online tests may provide the best possible option in the next few months. Our Director of Education Amanda Aisen offers valuable research and opinion on online testing here.

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

Modified AP Exams and Extended School Closures

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we close the week, we have updates from the College Board re: AP exams and from school districts on extended school closures

Modified AP Exams

This morning, the College Board announced that AP exams this year will be administered as 45-minute online exams for students to take at home. The content tested has been revised to exclude content that could not be taught before schools closed, and the question types will only include free-response questions. A detailed breakdown of what content will be included on each test can be found here on the College Board’s website.

Beginning next week, the College Board will offer free materials for self-study. Our instructors are available to tailor these materials and others to a student’s specific academic needs.

Extended School Closures for Illinois

For our Illinois families, please note that Chicago public schools’ closure was extended to April 20th, and the state-wide school closures have been extended to April 8th. In addition, the spring NWEA-MAP test for high school admissions has been cancelled.

Going Forward

For your convenience, we have compiled our daily updates on this website for you to review and share with others. We will continue to update you as we learn more. 

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

Rigor & Relevance: Critical Reading during COVID-19

Dear Academic Approach Families:

In today’s message, I highlight the importance of critical reading, rigor, and relevance while our students learn at home.

With the first week of e-learning drawing near an end, we can see that it’s challenging to replicate the rigor of consistent classroom learning at home. As educators and parents, we are being asked to find more opportunities for learning and engagement to keep students consistently growing.

I remember 20 years ago as a graduate student teaching in the core curriculum at Columbia in NYC trying to find ways to engage my freshmen writers. 19 persuasive essays, 1 semester—I had to make it relevant to get their buy-in. I focused on debates, controversies, often with direct relevance to our campus. If the text spoke to my students, I received strong engagement and persuasive argument from them in response.

Critical Reading during COVID-19
NYTimes Learning Article of the Day provides a great resource for nonfiction texts to read and study with students. If you select today’s lesson, “We Live in Zoom Now,” it provides a relevant article and very practical prompts for discussion and writing: How do you celebrate with friends in a world of social distancing? What are ways to teach our grandparents to use technology to engage? What is the most challenging thing about living online?

Making text-to-self connections has always been the most immediate way to get student buy-in and engagement. Science, technology, politics—no longer can be dismissed with that common student refrain: “What does that have to do with my life?”

That means this time is a teachable moment: a time to encourage students read rigorous and challenging nonfiction texts, and reflect on them seriously. The critical reading and thinking skills they’ll build will keep students on-track for their return to school and on the path to college readiness.

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

Preparing for AP Exams

Dear Academic Approach Families:

For those students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) Courses, it appears College Board is nearing a solution for AP Testing.

College Board, which manages AP Exams, will be posting its next update on Friday, March 20th with a plan for what is next in terms of the testing format for students and the materials for teachers who are teaching AP curriculum through e-learning. The most interesting option College Board references is in-home testing.

If your student would like supplemental instruction to partner with your school’s e-learning, do not hesitate to reach out to us at 773-348-8914. Our directors can walk you through the process and match you with one of our AP instructors.

Visit the College Board’s AP webpage for more updates. We will continue to keep you updated as more information is released.

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

Our Approach to E-Learning: New Delivery, Same High Quality

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As we move our in-person sessions online, I want to share some highlights and describe the steps we’re taking to continue to deliver our high-quality, personalized instruction.

Our Tech Approach
We’re using Zoom video conferencing to support our sessions. This is free to our students and easy to access. Zoom is compatible with a wide range of devices with the best engagement being through tablet, laptop, or desktop. Should a student wish to use an alternative setup, such as FaceTime or Skype, we will work to accommodate that request.

Our Tutoring Approach
I’ve delivered 2 effective days now of Zoom sessions with students. While I’ve provided distance learning for years over FaceTime or Skype, the Zoom experience supports a higher quality of instruction in a few ways.

  1. Digitized curriculum: We’ve digitized all of our tests and course books, so we can interact with them through Zoom’s screen sharing.
  2. White board: Zoom’s white board is excellent at allowing the instructor to provide clear visualizations of step-by-step problem solving. The close attention we pay to the student’s process and procedure can be maintained effectively through Zoom.

While adapting to new e-learning protocols can take time, these protocols also present new opportunities to grow. At Academic Approach, we’re embracing this opportunity to innovate while holding tightly to our core academic values and principles of instruction.

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

Planning for ACT & SAT Test Date Changes

Dear Academic Approach Families:

During this time of more questions than answers, we hope to help you determine next steps and stay on track with ACT and SAT planning and preparation. In this email, we will provide (1) updates from the ACT and SAT, and (2) some thoughts to keep in mind as you plan ahead.

First, we continue to inform you when ACT and SAT send us updates as these organizations carefully consider the health and wellness of their test takers:

  1. The SAT canceled most of its testing sites for the March 14th exam and College Board has now canceled the March 14th make-up exam that was scheduled for the 28th. The May 2nd SAT & SAT Subject Tests have also been canceled.
  2. The ACT has now canceled the April 4th exam. They are not currently planning to offer a make-up date but instead encourage students to take the June 13th exam.
  3. College Board has not given updates on how school closings will affect the AP Exam schedule. Once again, as we learn more, we will update everyone.
  4. For those students taking the mandatory Illinois Public School SAT or PSAT-10 on April 14th, those plans are up in the air. As the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) determines next steps, we will forward information as soon as possible.

Second, some thoughts as you plan ahead:

  1. For families who were planning to take the ACT or SAT on dates that were canceled, look for communication from ACT or College Board to determine if they will be offering you credit toward a future exam.
  2. The registration deadline for the June 13th ACT is May 8th.
  3. The registration deadline for the June 6th SAT is May 8th.

Academic Approach’s focus during this unusual time is to help students make consistent progress toward their ACT and SAT growth goals. Continuity is critical in student learning, and our students learn best through repeated, cumulative exposure to and practice of key college readiness skills. We hope to encourage your ability to maintain continuity through our complimentary online practice tests as well as our 25% reduction in fees for online tutoring.

Look for regular, informative email in the days to come. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out at any time.

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

An Offer for our Academic Approach Families

Dear Academic Approach Families:

At Academic Approach, we consider ourselves partners with our students’ families, helping them navigate important challenges and reach important milestones successfully.

As school closures officially begin across the state, we understand that we need to all keep our social distance, as appropriate; at the same time, however, we do not want to lose the momentum of academic progress that our students need to maintain during Spring.

To help you during these uncertain times, as of Monday, March 16th and until school resumes, we are moving our instruction online and offering a 25% discount on tutoring services as well as complimentary practice tests online. We hope that this gesture provides you the opportunity to continue your student’s academic progress.


Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder and CEO

Maintaining Academic Progress During School Closures

Dear Academic Approach Families:

As I write this email after a day of watching my middle schooler (who,
thankfully, is happy and healthy) playing video games on the sofa during her
first day of school closure, I am mindful of our need to keep our students on
track academically during this very unique time. Over the coming days, we’ll
see more and more of our students transitioning from classroom learning to
e-learning or remote learning.

We are here for you to offer any academic guidance, given what will surely be a cascade of rescheduled events. We are also here to offer support, so
students do not lose momentum in their academic progress. If you have
questions or concerns, feel free to reach out. We are here to help in any way

Below are additional links to important information from the ACT and College Board regarding the status of future test dates.

Look for future letters with updates as information becomes available. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder and CEO

Table of Contents

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.

In response to the growing concerns about the coronavirus (COVID-19), we are shifting our services to online tutoring and online practice testing.

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