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

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Applying To High School In Chicago Public Schools

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

This fall, we’re working closely with families, schools, and students to prepare them for a variety of high school entrance exams. Below, we’re answering a few common questions we’ve heard about the changes to the tests and process this year.

With multiple MAP tests used for selection for Chicago Public Schools selective enrollment high schools, what happens if a student performed better on reading on one test date and math on another?

Chicago Public Schools has stated that they will be superscoring MAP scores for CPS students from spring 2019, fall 2019, winter 2020, and the upcoming winter 2021 test sittings for selection to selective enrollment high schools. That means they will take their highest reading and math scores, even if they are from different test dates.

What about grades? Which grades will be used in selective enrollment scoring?

Chicago Public Schools will also be “superscoring” grades—so they’ll use the higher grade from either the first semester of 7th grade or the full year for each core subject considered (Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies).

Many independent, boarding, and parochial schools are looking at 6th grade report cards in addition to 7th and 8th grade this year.

Which tests are offered online, and which tests will be taken in a pencil-and-paper setting? How can students prepare?

This year, many of the high school entrance exams are offering options for online or paper-based testing. The SSAT and ISEE tests (primarily for boarding and independent schools) are offering computer-based testing both remotely in students’ homes and in test centers as well as paper-based testing options. Though the decision is school based, many parochial schools in the Chicagoland area are offering the HSPT as a remote, virtual exam. Students are required to register in advance this year. Be sure to check with the individual school where you plan to test to confirm how they’ll be giving the test. If you need accommodations or technical support, you’ll want to reach out as well.

For Chicago Public Schools, the MAP test will be given online, in person at a CPS school. The selective enrollment test will be given as a pencil-and-paper test at a CPS school as well.

The best preparation for any of these tests is rigorous academic instruction—and at Academic Approach, we’ve created assessments designed to assess students’ strengths and gaps on high school entrance exams to best assess where they might need additional support. For online-based high school entrance exams, we also provide additional tools to help students practice online testing to prepare for test day.

We have detailed information on our programming for middle school students on our website!

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

During Remote Learning, Parents Want Consistency of Instruction & Assessment

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

In a recent Coronavirus Impact Survey by the National Parents Union, parents report two key educational needs for their children: 

  1. the need for consistent, rigorous instruction; and
  2. a growing desire to use assessments to provide clarity into student learning

Consistent, Rigorous Instruction

When asked to choose between “improving online instruction” and “reopening school buildings,” a majority of parents said they would prefer a focus on “improving instruction,” with 54% insisting that schools should prioritize “providing access to consistent, high-quality remote or online learning.” Whether remote or in-person, parents wanted a consistent plan focused on high-quality instruction.

Consistent Use of Assessments

In a year when many state and local school officials and teachers unions have advocated for skipping standardized testing, 47% of parents want to keep these tests, while 43% want to skip them for the year. What’s interesting is this recent snapshot (taken in September) already varies significantly from a July poll, in which nearly 60% of parents wanted to cancel all standardized testing for the year. As students have returned to school this fall (virtual, hybrid, or in-person), the need for assessment to identify gaps and drive learning has become very clear.

These voices are consistent with what we continue to hear from families—they want to maintain academic progress through rigorous instruction, and they want insights (clear data and feedback) on what kind of progress students are making. We’ll continue to work hard with families and schools to provide that needed support, advancing growth and avoiding loss.

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

ACT & SAT Scores Declining: What’s Next

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

In its recently released 2020 National Profile Report, ACT reports that class of 2020 average ACT composite scores declined from 20.7 to 20.6, which represents the lowest composite score in 10 years. Similar results were seen in the recently released SAT 2020 Annual Report, where College Board reports a decrease in scores for the Class of 2020: SAT composite scores dropped from 1059 (Class of 2019) to 1051 (Class of 2020), with a 3-point decrease in Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) from 531 to 528 and a 5-point decrease in Math from 528 to 523.

The percentage of students meeting college readiness benchmarks also saw decline, particularly in math, where the percent of college-ready students dropped from 39% to 37% nationally:

These benchmarks are particularly important to track because they predict college performance and persistence. Students meeting a benchmark in a given subject are more likely to pass the related freshman-level college course; students meeting multiple benchmarks are more likely to graduate from college. ACT stresses that the best preparation for the test and college success is rigorous coursework in high school. It is concerning, therefore, to see this decline, especially in math. This report only includes the graduating class of 2020, which was largely unaffected (in terms of ACT test-taking) by the pandemic. Given the research on COVID-slide, many predict a year of steep declines in math learning and performance that will likely be reflected in next year’s report.  

ACT’s own research from the spring would indicate we can expect even greater declines for the class of 2021. In its May research and policy brief, ACT shared its predictions of the impact of remote learning on ACT performance. The table below summarizes the research on typical per-month gains for students in school versus out of school. 

Source: ACT Research & Policy Brief

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 (to reflect inconsistent approaches to remote learning in the spring), students would instead see a net gain of only 0.82 points per year. That’s likely to be exacerbated by the variety of experiences in school this fall; at this point, most students are still learning remotely to varying degrees of efficacy. This seemingly small decrease in ACT scores amounts to a sizable impact on overall student achievement across the country.

Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT—and research on their predictive power—provide a context for correlating assessment data with high school GPA and readiness to perform and persist in college. SAT research boasts a strong correlation criterion: 0.53. In a year when measures of academic progress are more important than ever and we need to measure GPA against other reliable criteria, it’s important to track what data we can obtain to predict and combat declines in learning.

With months of remote and/or hybrid learning ahead, we’ll be watching student achievement data closely to track how this trend develops. Most importantly, we’ll remain focused on combatting the problem of learning loss through a rigorous approach to skills-based instruction

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

Supporting Success On NWEA-MAP: Online Testing

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:  

We know many elementary and middle school students take the NWEA-MAP or other online tests. To support their preparation, we’ve developed an online practice test to help students get more comfortable testing in an online setting. 

Our High School Entrance Exam Online Practice Test includes an overview of content commonly seen at the middle school level and is aligned to the skills assessed on the NWEA-MAP test. It’s not a practice MAP test—it’s an opportunity for students to practice online testing (including using an online calculator and reading online) in a low-stakes scenario. It also provides students and instructors with detailed information on student skills strengths and gaps.  

In combination with our practice tests for the various high school entrance exams, this practice serves as great support in helping middle school students prepare for online testing. Below are some snapshots from the test: 


We’re excited to continue to share new resources with our students, especially as we anticipate a future increase in both online and at-home assessments.

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

Chicago High School Admissions: Important Updates

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

We work quite extensively with students in the middle grades. Just this summer we released our updated curriculum designed to bridge the gap we often see between middle and high school academic skills. We support our students’ success both on the high school entrance exams and in mastering the academic skills they’ll need to be successful in high school and college.

Today, we share an update on the high school admissions process for students applying to selective enrollment schools within Chicago Public Schools. This week, CPS opened the GoCPS application for students applying to high school for the 2021-22 school year, and they’ll have until December 11 to submit their application, rank programs, and sign up for admissions exams. CPS has adapted the process significantly this school year. Some changes to note:

  • Students can now use a superscored NWEA-MAP score for eligibility to take the selective enrollment test and toward their selection total score. This means CPS will automatically take a student’s highest reading score and highest math score from any eligible date.
    • CPS students can use their scores from Spring 2019, Fall 2019, and Winter 2019 for eligibility along with their upcoming test in Winter 2020 for their total selection score. Students from non-CPS schools should have already registered for an upcoming test date to take the NWEA-MAP at a CPS school in the coming weeks.
  • CPS will also be using a superscored version of GPA, using the highest score from either the first semester or final grades from 7th grade.
  • They do still anticipate administering the selective enrollment exam in-person using health and safety protocols in winter of eighth grade as usual.

You can learn more about these process changes from CPS here. For more information on high school entrance exams and how we support our students’ success on them, read more here.

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

ACT Test Cancellations & Re-Registration Strategies

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

We’ve heard from many of you regarding ACT test cancellations of this past weekend’s October 10th administration. In these exchanges, we’ve developed—in collaboration with you—a few approaches for re-registration that have proven successful. We wanted to share two of these strategies with you today:

Strategy #1

  • Contact ACT first thing in the morning. You will most likely experience a long wait time, so be prepared. Communicating by phone has been working better than website or an email.
  • Explain that your test for October 10th was canceled and you need a testing event ASAP. In some cases, ACT has found students a test center for October 17th.
  • Inquire about test centers that are NOT at high schools. ACT has been offering tests on Saturdays and Sundays at hotels, specifically Westin Hotels; these hotels have space in ballrooms and other large, underutilized spaces.

Strategy #2

  • Message ACT on their Twitter account, explaining the circumstances. Some families have received re-registrations for other October dates via a confirmation Tweet.

We’ll keep you posted on what we continue to learn, and we thank you for continuing to share any and all experiences you have.

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

What Strategies Work For High-Impact Academic Intervention

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

A brief from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Annenberg Institute at Brown University reviews research posing an essential question: what academic interventions and what strategies should schools prioritize?

What works?

  • Frequent tutoring tied to core academic content (and designed to support students with their classroom work) can help students learn faster and lessen gaps in achievement
  • Increasing time students spend learning has strong evidence of impact
  • Strong systems to identify early student warning signs—while building strong norms and routines—help students engage academically
  • Supportive relationships with adults are predictive of students’ resilience and ability to respond to adversity

What does not work?

  • Teaching extra content without providing more personalized support for students does not work; in other words, compressing content through extra homework or more content in the same class period does not work
  • Grade retention (or holding students back a year) also led to negative effects

Much of this research continues to encourage our work this year to provide carefully designed academic tutoring solutions for families and schools and to leverage standardized test preparation as well for rigorous, academic support to grow scores and skills by Teaching Beyond the Test.

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

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Every Student is Different

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

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

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

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