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

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Back to school

It’s hard to believe that it’s back-to-school time again across the country. Of course, “back to school” means something different now—for some, it means in-person school for the first time since March 2020. As we talk with parents and school leaders, they are dealing with a range of pressing needs from making sure buses are available and on time to the basics of safety and psychological well-being of students.

As we climb the hierarchy of needs, we get to “cognitive” needs: making certain students are learning and are challenged with rigorous material, so they maintain academic progress.  That’s our ultimate focus as an organization (and mine as a parent of three), but we first must jump a number of hurdles to get there.

One key hurdle we all face? Helping students organize, plan, and prioritize.

Here are 2 important ways parents can help improve planning, so students are able to focus—with less distraction & wasted energy—on academic success:

Establish/re-establish structure

For many families, the past school year and, of course, summer meant relaxing certain routines. It’s helpful to involve students in discussions of re-establishing these routines. Collaboratively, families can set clear norms around:

Bedtime: What time is bedtime? What’s the technology policy prior to it (e.g., phones in the charger, NOT in the bedroom)? What prep for the morning must be accomplished first (e.g., picking out clothes, preparing bookbags, planning breakfast and lunch, etc.)?

A well-planned bedtime routine minimizes morning stress and chaos.

Morning: What time is wake-up? Who’s responsible for the alarm clock? Who’s responsible for breakfast? What are the time milestones for key actions (e.g., downstairs, breakfast finished, out the door, etc.)?

A stream-lined morning—executed on time—sets a low-stress tone for facing the challenges of the day ahead.

Keys to establishing successful structure:

  1. Co-planning, so the schedule is created collaboratively and students “own” it;
  2. Visualizing, so the plan is easy to access and remember (e.g., on a white board or in a shared electronic family calendar).

Make an accountability plan for academics

In general, students will have more homework as well as more access to teachers than they’re used to last year. How do we want them to handle the new challenges and opportunities?  An accountability plan for academics can cover—specifically—norms around the following behaviors:

Determine where and when homework is completed–defining this plan engages the student in important self-reflection: “When and where am I most productive in completing work related to my different subjects?” “What can I commit to consistently, so my routine is regular and predictable?”

Establish norms of preparing for & communicating results from tests–defining these norms also engages the student in important self-reflection: “What should my prep time look like for tests or assignments in my subjects?” “How can I make sure to update my parents on my academic progress and challenges along the way, so we are all on the same page?”

Encourage self-advocating with teachers—encouraging students to engage their teachers builds self-confidence and independence.

Establish norms around:

  1. Emailing teachers for clarification around assignments;
  2. Reviewing all feedback with teachers to demonstrate curiosity, engagement, and the desire to improve; and
  3. Visiting office hours regularly to establish rapport and relationships with teachers as mentors.

Keys to establishing an academic accountability plan:

  1. Consistency;
  2. Self-reflection on who the student is and how the student learns/performs best; and
  3. A strong focus on self-advocacy with teachers.

Clear structure & accountability plans—like all educational plans—need to be customized to the unique needs and context of the student and family, but even just the attempt to create them sparks useful, important conversations. The effort helps identify key academic behaviors, prerequisites to successful academic performance now and in the long-term.

Good luck, plan well, and we wish everyone a successful school year!

Updates To Chicago Public Schools (CPS) High School Admissions Testing

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

At Academic Approach, we are committed to serving as a reliable resource for parents in our community, especially as they navigate an often-changing landscape of assessment, curriculum, and instruction. One of the more complicated landscapes to navigate is high school admissions in Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Two weeks ago, we summarized for you the critical guidelines in planning and preparing seventh graders for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Selective Enrollment Exam and noted the importance of the NWEA MAP scores, which comprised one-third of a student’s point total in the scoring system.

Today, we’re sending this important update to the CPS high school admissions process, announced this week. Here are the key points of reference:

  • Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will not administer the NWEA MAP this spring to be used in the 2022-2023 selection process
  • The 900-point scale moves to an equal weight (450 points each) of seventh grade grades and the CPS High School Admissions Test, dropping the NWEA MAP portion entirely
  • The Selective Enrollment Exam (also known as the High School Admissions Test) will be administered to ALL Chicago Public Schools 8th grade students during the school day this fall. A qualifying NWEA MAP score is no longer required. Non-CPS students will sign up to take the test on a weekend.

CPS notes that the universal administration of the admissions test during the school day fosters equity of access, among other key logistical practicalities. It’s important to note that the elimination of the NWEA MAP testing will not impact the selection process for current 8th graders in the 2021-2022 school year. Admission results are still expected on April 30th. We will continue to highlight the impact of this announcement to students and their preparation programs in the coming weeks.

Academic Approach improves your students’ standardized testing by tailoring our research-based, expert instruction and curriculum to your needs, and we can design a solution for you right away. Feel free to give us a call at 773-348-8914 or get in touch by filling out our contact form.

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


3 Guidelines To Prepare For The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Selective Enrollment Exam

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

Gaining admission to a Selective Enrollment High School is very competitive, and test scores are a significant factor in determining acceptance into the top schools, with 7th grade MAP scores comprising a third of a student’s point total and the 8th grade Selective Enrollment Exam accounting for an additional third. At Academic Approach, we encourage parents and students to begin instruction the summer before 7th grade. We’ve summarized three important guidelines to consider as you prepare:

1. Timing is critical 

While the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Selective Enrollment Exam is scheduled for dates across fall and winter of 8th grade, it’s key for students to prepare for the exam with strong academic skill-building throughout 7th grade, including preparation for the MAP test in the spring of 7th grade while earning strong grades.*

Note: One-third of students’ admission eligibility is determined by their 7th-grade letter grades in Reading, Math, Social Studies, and Science, and an additional third is determined by their 7th-grade qualifying test scores on the MAP exam.

2. Develop academic excellence

Improving 7th grade academic performance will prepare students for the 8th grade Selective Enrollment Exam. This exam incorporates key math, reading, grammar, and vocabulary learned throughout elementary and middle school, and students will need time to learn all these skills.

3. Strategic practice makes perfect

Some specific features of the 8th grade Selective Enrollment Exam can make it especially challenging for students and require additional preparation.

  • No calculators allowed: Mental math is critical to success! Teach students to solve without the calculator as a tool. While they can use a calculator on the MAP test, they’ll have to rely on mental math and calculation skills on the 8th grade test.
  • Vocabulary is explicitly tested:  Motivate students to read complex texts and incorporate vocabulary in their speaking and writing to build high-level vocabulary skills through authentic practice.

For more information on the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Selective Enrollment Exam, visit our information page here.

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

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

*Timing may be subject to change due to Coronavirus limitations on in-person events.\

A Strong Academic Foundation Is Built Early

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

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

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

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

The Importance of Rigor

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

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

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

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

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

Why Does This Matter Now?

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

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

Be well,

Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

3 Key Habits Of Students Who Prepare For Success

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

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

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

Goal Setting

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

Anticipating Obstacles & Planning

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

Cultivating Positive Habits & Mindset

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

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

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

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


Leveraging The Summer Productively For Learning

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

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

3 Reasons Why Summer Instruction is Valuable

Combating summer learning loss

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

Assessing the student’s availability to learn

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

Building stronger outcomes

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

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

When Is The Right Time To Start Test Preparation?

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

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

Avoiding Extremes

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

Time & Performance

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

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

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

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

What our Research Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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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.