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

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Close Tracking: Identifying Early Warning Signs Of Learning Loss

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:
 
For months we’ve shared research predicting increased losses in foundational skills for students this fall. Some studies suggested students will only register 70% of the learning gains in reading and 50% of math compared to a typical school year. 

Now that we’re a quarter into the school year, it’s time to track closely all data available to assess where students stand. A recent article in Education Week highlights some key data points we need to look for:   


Ramp Up Parent Engagement

One theme this research focuses on is the importance of ramping up parent engagement. Why?

Especially with students at home, parents are uniquely poised to answer essential questions:

  • Are grades and test scores trending consistently or is there evidence of downward trend?
  • Are students attending class consistently and seriously?
  • Are students working rigorously during school and completing homework after school?

Many parents are now—like teachers—poised to conduct classroom observations almost daily. Parent engagement is critical to track closely early warning signs of underperformance in order to react, correct, and help students maintain academic progress and avoid learning loss.

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

Applying To College During COVID

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

We’ve heard from many families about the challenges of applying to college this fall. With so much still uncertain and many students unable to visit colleges, many students are finding an already challenging process even more of an uphill climb.

With the early decision deadline for many schools at the beginning of November, we’re already seeing the impacts of these difficulties. Through November 2nd, the Common Application, through which students can apply to more than 900 colleges and universities, saw 8% fewer first-year applications when compared to the same time period in 2019. Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is down 16% from last year.

One small advantage to students this year, however, is the robust availability of online information about schools. Many colleges and universities are offering more and more virtual visit and information session options, increasing access to learn more about schools when in-person visits are unlikely. Many colleges are relying more heavily than ever on metrics like demonstrated interest (how much interest the student shows in a given college) to help admit students more likely to attend, and students are able to demonstrate that interest in more accessible ways through these virtual engagements.

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

First-Quarter Results Demonstrate Impact of Learning Loss

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:
 
We’ve shared significant research this year on anticipated learning loss. Today, with the close of the first quarter of the school year, we’re sharing some updates from school districts across the country that are beginning to learn more about those impacts. In Utah, one school district found that twice as many students this fall received at least one failing or incomplete grade when compared to 2019, and an incredible five times as many students received all Fs or incompletes when compared to last fall. Most of the students who received all failing grades (73%) were students attending only online classes. In Dallas, fall NWEA-MAP assessments showed that nearly half of all students experienced learning loss in math, and a third fell behind in reading from spring 2019. 

These results can have a long-term impact on students; these grades will be used to apply to college and the academic slide may set them back for years. Schools are exploring creative options to combat the issue this fall, and personalized learning has become an important way for educators to reach students with more profound needs this fall than in the past. We’re working with families and schools to develop customized academic tutoring solutions to meet the specific challenges students are facing this school year.  

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

Seeking Special Accommodations On Standardized Tests

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, I had the chance to share our insights into working with students with learning differences, specifically through the college admissions process. We focus below on the topic of seeking special accommodations on standardized tests, an important but controversial topic:

Understanding Special Accommodations on Standardized Tests

Accommodations for the SAT and ACT are designed to adjust the test-taking environment so that it works for students with learning differences, enabling them to “show what they know.” They do not affect the standardization of the tests.

Research generally backs their efficacy. In the 1970s and ’80s, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom showed that learning speed is not an indicator of intelligence and that, with additional time, students who otherwise struggle can achieve at the highest levels. A research review published more recently comes to a similar conclusion, noting that students with learning differences benefit more than their typical peers when granted additional time. But this finding isn’t universal (here, for example, researchers reached the opposite conclusion), and the existing research is far from exhaustive. Such contradictions are disappointing to those of us who have seen accommodations work well at the individual level, as they undermine the credibility of accommodations overall.

Also undermining their credibility: accommodations are not always used as intended.

The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal illustrated that the system is open to abuse. That scandal seemed to reify the most damaging myths about learning status and educational accommodations — among them, that accommodations amount to special treatment.

When used as intended, they don’t.

Further, while Varsity Blues may have hurt the public’s perception of test accommodations, it likely did not impact their treatment by admissions teams. That’s because these teams cannot see accommodation status, thanks to a 2003 decision by the College Board (administrator of the SAT) and ACT. ACT’s recent payment of more than $16 million to settle charges that it was improperly disclosing disability status indicates that regulators and watchdogs are serious about keeping accommodation status private.

Ultimately, students and families must decide for themselves whether to apply for accommodations. If they can enable students with learning differences to better demonstrate their knowledge in a testing environment, there’s no good reason not to. (Here is a helpful breakdown of how to apply.)

The most important takeaway for students and families is this: the SAT or ACT should not be the first time a student tests with accommodations. Just as accommodations throughout a student’s career can better position them to be attractive college applicants, so too can a track record of accommodations illuminate which ones actually help. This ought not to be an 11th hour effort but a sustained effort over years to articulate the unique learning profile of the student. 

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

Highlight, Don’t Hide, Your Learning Difference

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, I had the chance to share our insights into working with students with learning differences, specifically through the college admissions process. We focus here on the question of whether to disclose learning differences in your college application.

“Should we disclose a learning difference on college applications?” It’s an understandable concern.

The general population has many wrongheaded biases that can make applicants wary of mentioning learning differences. This may be why the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) found that only 24 percent of students with learning differences inform their college about their status.

Experts, though, are nearly universal in their recommendation: it’s best to disclose, for three main reasons. 

  • First, learning differences are common, affecting one in five students.
  • Second, disclosing learning status gives students an opportunity to explain information that might otherwise raise a red flag, such as high grades but low test scores. Deans at such selective schools as Dickinson College and Yale University agree that disclosure can be helpful in such situations.
  • Finally, disclosure offers a chance to tell a story of adversity overcome — resilience. Students who demonstrate that they’ve achieved academic success by overcoming the adversity of learning differences show that they’re prepared for the rigors of higher education — a key differentiator in a competitive applicant pool. 

So how should students go about disclosing?

General wisdom suggests using the “additional information” section of the Common Application. This formula can be effective:

  1. Educate the admissions team by naming and defining the learning difference.
  2. Inform them about the impact it’s had — on learning, grades, test scores, etc. — and how the student has compensated, including any accommodations they’ve received (IEPs, 504s, test accommodations).
  3. Impress with results. Describe what the accommodations and adaptations have let the student achieve. 

This three-part explanation lets students make the case for themselves as scholars willing to engage in the difficult work necessary to thrive in a demanding academic setting. To ensure this section truly illustrates resilience, the work of assessing, documenting, and accommodating should start long before the college application process. This ought not to be an 11th hour effort but a sustained effort over years to articulate the unique learning profile of the student. 

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

Teaching Beyond The Test: The Importance Of Ninth Grade

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

One of our core instructional values is Teaching Beyond the Test™—focusing on skills that will prepare students for success in high school and college. The same is true for our work in preparing students for high school admissions testing and selective enrollment testing. This work matters: research has made it clear that student success in ninth grade is strongly related to performance throughout high school as well as the likelihood of success in college.

Early Success = Later Success

We’re thrilled when we hear about our students’ success in admissions testing; in the last two years, 86% of our students shared outcomes with us that they were admitted to a top choice school or program. They also report the skills they learned with Academic Approach in 8th grade helped them once in high school: their grammar work helped improve their writing skills; their practice in close-reading nonfiction prepared them for high school-level social studies; and the skill-building work in math gave them the foundations they needed for success in advanced math courses in high school.

As ninth-grade GPA strongly predicts eleventh-grade GPA and is associated with higher college persistence rates, we know these students are on track to be successful throughout high school and college.

Upping the Rigor Earlier

As more and more families express their desire to see increased rigor in instruction and accountability for student learning this year, we are helping raise the bar. Our improved Middle School curriculum is geared to anticipate and prepare for the rigors of high school and beyond. We are intervening earlier to ensure we maintain academic progress now and later.

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

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

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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.