The History of Academic Approach

In the Beginning The Academic Approach story begins with its founder, Matthew Pietrafetta, as a PhD candidate and instructor at Columbia University in New York City. While simultaneously teaching core curriculum classes to Columbia freshmen and tutoring high school students for the SAT and ACT, Matthew took note of significant challenges that were facing these transitional students. Primary among them were disparities in test scores, college readiness, and student opportunities, as well as a chasm between test preparation and institutional education. Soon, Matthew began to look for ways to turn those challenges into opportunities for student growth and education innovation and quickly became passionate about the idea of revolutionizing test preparation. Matthew sought an alternative to traditional test prep, which for years was maligned for teaching to the test and using generic test-taking strategies for a nonexistent “average student.” The idea for Academic Approach was born in a method of test preparation based on academic skill development and customized for students at a wide range of achievement levels. Founding Principles The company itself was founded in 2001 using three principles as its bedrock: Tests are standardized. Students are not.™ There is no average student. While some may look similar on paper, students vary greatly in learning styles, personalities, and many other dimensions. Academic Approach would tailor its programs specifically to the individual student, eschewing the one-size-fits-all traditional approach. Skills-based Test Preparation.™ Strategy, tips and tricks, gaming: these are not the ways to build lasting skills and knowledge. Academic Approach would bring rigorous college readiness and enduring academic value to test preparation, enabling student growth in high school, on test day, and throughout college. Teaching Beyond the Test.™ By challenging the “teaching to the test” stereotype and working with other educators and institutions to improve academic progress holistically, Academic Approach would live out its mission to teach beyond the test. School Programs Transforming test preparation into a personalized, academically enriching form of teaching is undoubtedly beneficial and will always be at the core of Academic Approach’s mission. However, to truly maximize the company’s impact and address the larger issues of barriers to education and college access, Matthew pushed the company to find ways to reach students in underperforming schools and underserved communities. Academic Approach began to develop school program services to support students from these communities and their school leaders in raising student achievement. Directors from Academic Approach work intimately with school partners to develop readiness solutions that meet the school’s and students’ needs. In addition, Academic Approach offers scholarships, discounts to faculty children, and other discounted programs to bring high-quality instruction to a greater diversity of students. More than 50 urban schools have already partnered with Academic Approach to improve student achievement and outcomes. What’s Next Academic Approach’s one-on-one tutoring and school program services make a real difference for students who strive to maximize their academic performance and compete in the college admissions process. The educators and students served—and their remarkable growth and achievement — make Academic Approach a true [...]

College Readiness Summer Seminar

Many students struggle to find productive ways to fill the summer. For the past four years, Academic Approach has provided Chicago students a way to not only to fill time but to thrive academically: The College Readiness Summer Seminar. This program provides an accessible place for students to further their academic skills while gaining exposure to various careers and the college matriculation process. The Summer Seminar series is our way of giving back to the Chicago community by providing low-cost college readiness guidance for rising seniors. The program is designed specifically to benefit students who will be the first in their family to attend college. Participants come from a variety of schools across the city, and students meet at DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus to simulate a true college experience. This year’s Summer Seminar is happening as we speak: 25 students meet every Tuesday and Thursday, from July 10 to August 23. Each session includes two hours of skills-based SAT preparation, a complimentary lunch, and an extracurricular activity. Among those activities are team-building exercises, guest lectures from young professionals, local university tours, and service learning projects. The program has been wildly successful. Throughout the years, program graduates have been accepted to their preferred colleges, awarded competitive scholarships, and formed friendship that last well beyond their high school years. The Academic Approach School Programs team is proud of these students’ accomplishments, and as long as there are motivated students in need, the Summer Seminar will exist for years to come. Student Testimonials Here’s what the program has meant to two students in their own words. “At Summer Seminar, I learned a lot, not just for the SAT. I learned more about my potential colleges. I learned how to possibly make the college decision a little easier or more organized as we talked about what we value and should find important in a school. This also helped my senior year and the college decision process because it allowed me to have my top 3 colleges in mind throughout the entire process. Now, I will be attending one of those schools. I Also learned how to work with others. Although I, and the others, have probably worked with groups in school, Academic Approach allowed us to collaborate in unique ways and allowed us to use our creativity and background to work together. Finally, at Academic Approach, I learned a lot in the subjects for the SAT. Academic Approach helped me greatly with the SAT. SAT scores converted to ACT scores, my score went from a 24 to a 26. With the program’s small class size, I was able to get more attention and get more in depth with difficult subjects, which really helped my score. I definitely recommend this program to others! I gained points on the SAT, gained some skills needed in life, and gained several friends that I stayed in touch with throughout the year. I had lots of fun!” Juliana, Class of 2018   “I finally got my SAT scores that [...]

Professional Development for Teachers and ACT/SAT Testing

Professional development time for teachers can be incredibly valuable and rare. However, recent research has found that much professional development for teachers may not actually be useful in improving effectiveness in the classroom — ostensibly its primary purpose. In a large-scale longitudinal study of three districts’ investment in professional development, TNTP found that only three in 10 teachers demonstrated substantial improvement in their evaluation scores (while two in 10 actually saw their scores decline). Moreover, after five years in the classroom, teachers rarely improve at all; the average fifth-year teacher’s performance is very similar to that of teachers with fifteen years of experience. School districts spend thousands of dollars per teacher each year on professional development, and cracking the code around how to spend that time and money most effectively is one of the highest-leverage tools administrators have in improving the performance of their schools and districts. Purpose of Professional Development for Teachers For professional development to be effective, it’s essential to first define a specific purpose. Administrators must first identify a gap in their teachers’ professional skill set. Professional development for teachers is not a panacea, and specific goals should be identified at the outset. Have administrators observed a particular instructional practice that is problematic? Have test scores been stagnant for a number of years? Is there a gap for a cohort of students that is concerning? Are teachers asking for help in a specific area? It’s essential to first identify the need in a school before identifying the solution. Once that need has been identified, it’s time to pursue a solution. We’ll dig next into a gap we’ve seen in many schools that can be improved through professional development for teachers. We’ve spent many hours of working side-by-side with teachers and administrators, and we’ve heard many of them express a need for support in preparing their students for college entrance exams. Professional Development for ACT/SAT? At first, the idea of professional development targeting a standardized test may not seem like a particularly good use of time with so many competing priorities. But the best professional development for teachers around ACT and SAT is not just about gaming a test—it’s promoting understanding of what it means for students to be college ready while building data analysis skills for teachers, two of the most important priorities for any school. ACT and SAT data can also provide a clear metric for teachers to identify gaps in their classrooms without the subjective challenges of observation data. TNTP’s professional development study found that 80 percent of teachers whose observation scores had declined substantially in the last several years self-evaluated their own practice had improved “some” or “tremendously” over the same time period. College readiness exam scores and clear data can provide teachers with benchmarks to measure their development and success. By measuring their students’ growth and performance on standards on an objective assessment, teachers can take emotion out of the equation and instead focus on what’s needed to drive student growth. Increasing Rigor [...]

By |2018-01-16T22:48:36+00:00January 16, 2018|ACT SP, Instruction, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

Making the Mean Less Mean: Strategic Reading in an SAT or ACT Math Prep Course

  “I had no clue what that problem meant.” “I got confused -- what does the mean mean?” “They can do the math, but they can’t understand the word problems.” “That problem was way too wordy, so I skipped it.” When you work with students in an SAT or ACT math prep course, you realize something quickly: you’re suddenly spending a lot of your time as a reading teacher. Solving math problems presents a host of reading pitfalls—from decoding technical jargon to making sense of convoluted prose.   A Student’s Perspective Take an SAT or ACT math prep course from a student’s perspective for a moment.   You suddenly must accept that “mean,” for example, no longer applies only to how your older brother treats you, but also to the arithmetic average of a set of numbers. You must agree that a statement like “a number squared is equal to 7 less than 35 more than that number” is both a sentence that can be understood and one that you actually care to understand! In short, you are learning a new language. But here’s the rub: Learning math as a language is not necessarily invested with all the fun and purpose of becoming fluent in French, so you can travel to Paris, explore, and enjoy touring the Louvre.  Instead, all too often learning this language looks a bit more like training a puppy to sit, shake, and roll over by cueing up discrete behavioral actions with verbal commands. Doing Math Stuff Consider a student learning word-problem translation. It often begins with providing a lexicon or translation key. Students are taught that “of” means “multiply” and “is” means “equals,” etc. However, this form of instruction is largely procedural: follow this recipe, and you’ll produce an equation that will make sense. In the end, students can be trained to respond to these cues and “do math stuff”… but can they make real math meaning? Doing math stuff—executing procedures, using recipes, writing out steps—does not necessarily lead to a meaningful outcome. In fact, we often see students “do math stuff” in an SAT or ACT math prep course but produce some outrageous, illogical conclusions: In a problem that involves a series of discounts applied to the value of a $100 dress, a student concludes that the dress costs more than $100! Yes, the student did math stuff, but that stuff lacked contextual meaning and any truly incisive check back from the student.   Plants growing according to regular increments suddenly start shrinking? Athletes running foot races suddenly reach break-the-sound-barrier rates of motion? And a student with 10 equally weighted test scores –  consisting of nine 80s and one 100 – enjoys the happy fate of earning a 90 average for the semester? What luck! All these scenarios are so magical as to be kind of funny, expressing some witty adolescent desire to be subversive. But, sadly, they are not. Instead, they reflect a common gap between translating math in a perfunctory manner and [...]

By |2022-02-04T15:56:01+00:00November 15, 2017|ACT SP, Instruction, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

A Matter of Time Part II: The Critics and Advocates of SAT and ACT Accommodations

  Controversy has existed for years around the subject of SAT and ACT accommodations, and that controversy seems to revolve around three critical themes: 1) Equity—Are all deserving students receiving fair access to SAT and ACT accommodations? 2) Legitimacy—Are the accommodations the right ones for the specific diagnoses? 3) Validity—Do these SAT and ACT accommodations truly accommodate the disabling conditions or rather do they modify the exam, undermining its standardization? Equity.  Equity is a serious matter: A 2000 California audit concluded that those getting SAT or ACT accommodations "were disproportionately white, or were more likely to come from an affluent family or to attend a private school."  More than a decade later, the Chicago Tribune's review of data obtained under open records laws indicated in Illinois that the percentage of test takers with accommodations doubled the national average.  Schools in wealthy districts with predominantly white students were at the top of the list. Where there is wealth, there is an elevated level of advocacy and subsequently elevated levels of SAT or ACT accommodations.  That trend indicates that while accommodations are intended to level the playing field for disabled students, the administration of those accommodations is not working out equitably by socioeconomic factors. Legitimacy.  An interesting criticism on the legitimacy of accommodations has been offered by Boston University professor Ari Trachtenberg is his Sept. 2016 Chronicle of Higher Ed piece “ADA in the Classroom: Suitable Accommodation or Legalized Cheating?” He argues principally that there is a lack of research evidence for the connection between an accommodation and the disability.  “In effect, both the College Board and some colleges (which base their own policies for accommodations around the board’s practices) appear to be providing an advantage to some students on rigorously controlled tests, without a rigorous foundation for the accommodation.”  At the heart of his argument, again, is the matter of time. He sees the granting of extended time as a one-size-fits-all concession The College Board, ACT, and universities make without a specific rationale for the merits of that accommodation in relation to the specific disability in question: “Accommodations must be specific to circumstances, and transparently published for specific disabilities, just like grading rubrics and curves.  It may be convenient for both the universities and the students to indiscriminately agree to simple accommodations such as time extension for a whole host of disabilities in prima facie compliance with the ADA, but this dilutes the integrity of the academic process without providing a definable benefit, either to those students who are disabled, or to those who are not.” Trachtenberg’s premise is that time matters: he values some speeded component of his tests, and so accommodating that component—unless rigorously justified—could modify the validity of his exams. Validity.  Trachtenberg’s line of reasoning is taken to a logical extreme by Bruce Pardy of Queen’s University Faculty of Law in his August 2016 Education and Law Journal article “Head Starts and Extra Time: Academic Accommodation on Post-Secondary Exams and Assignments for Cognitive and Mental Disabilities.” Pardy argues [...]

By |2017-11-03T06:08:19+00:00November 3, 2017|ACT SP, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|1 Comment

A Matter of Time: Extended-time ACT and SAT Accommodations

“I can’t believe I went up 12 points on the ACT! Cannot believe it.  Crying with happiness.  Wow!” After 20 years of helping students grow their ACT and SAT scores, finding an email like this at the top of my inbox still brings me the greatest joy.  More satisfying still is that this email came from a student with diagnosed learning disabilities, one who worked hard to develop critical reading and reasoning skills, applied for and earned extended-time accommodations, and was ultimately able to deliver that “show what you know” performance. Learning-disabled students—when given appropriate accommodations and instruction—are capable of remarkable growth.  What’s more, it appears to be, in part, a matter of time: ACT and SAT accommodations, such as extended time, can make that critical difference for these students.   ACT and SAT accommodations – what are they? ACT and SAT accommodations are provided by ACT and the College Board (SAT)—as well as primary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions—to test takers with disabilities or health-related needs.  ACT and SAT accommodations can range from extended-time to multiple-day testing to computer testing for essays to extra breaks for medication or snacks to a host of other concessions.    These accommodations are not designed to remove standardization, because that would undermine the validity of the test, but rather to make appropriate adjustments, given a student’s disabling conditions, that will provide an equal opportunity to demonstrate skills and knowledge. In other words, ACT and SAT accommodations are designed to give disabled students a fair chance to “show what they know.”   Who qualifies for ACT and SAT accommodations? The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and federal regulations under Section 504 extended civil rights protections to disabled people.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 required test publishers and administrators to provide reasonable accommodations for disabling conditions (Asquith and Feld, 1992). The disabilities that receive accommodations most frequently are learning disabilities, including dyslexia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other specific mental disorders.  While the range of learning disabilities in their variable combinations may require multiple accommodations, extended time is a frequent accommodation for students with learning disabilities. Extended time can provide a student with a visual sequencing disturbance more time to properly see letters and numbers, or a student with dyslexia the necessary time to read a test more slowly and comprehend more accurately. What steps do parents or guardians need to take in order for their child to receive ACT or SAT accommodations? Step 1: Determine Eligibility Eligibility for SAT accommodations requires that the disability must result in a relevant functional limitation.  For ACT accommodations, the disability must substantially limit a major life activity compared to the average person in the general population.  The longer the case has been documented, the more persuasive.  The more the student relies on the specific accommodations in school, i.e., uses the accommodations for in-school testing because they are truly needed, the more compelling.     Step 2: Gather Necessary Documentation Provide documentation that states the specific diagnosis, as captured [...]

By |2022-02-04T15:48:40+00:00October 27, 2017|ACT SP, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments