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 [...]
Researchers and educators have long emphasized the importance and value of engaging students in the authentic practices of the discipline they study (e.g. Edelson, 1998). Indeed, many argue that students cannot fully understand concepts without also participating in the practices through which these ideas are developed. In the classroom, this means engaging students in forms of inquiry that are similar to those that are used by literary scholars, historians, or scientists. In all subjects, this type of inquiry involves student-driven investigations of complex or “no known answer” problems. In science, inquiry-based learning more specifically includes hands-on investigations, analyzing scientific data in many forms, including texts and graphics, and creating models to understand and explain scientific phenomena. Although the specific practices vary by discipline, the goal of apprenticing students to develop authentic habits of mind and reasoning skills remains constant. Transitioning from Traditional Instruction Experts agree that there are benefits to infusing authentic disciplinary inquiry into instruction, though moving away from traditional instruction can be challenging for many teachers. Inquiry-based learning has been shown to support not only conceptual understanding (e.g. White & Frederickson, 1998), but also understanding the skills and practices of the discipline. It has also been shown to increase students’ interest and engagement (e.g. Welch, Klopfer, Aikenhead, & Robinson, 1981). Implementing inquiry-based learning in the classroom, however, comes with its own set of challenges. Productive inquiry-based learning is often complex, messy, and boisterous. Inquiry classrooms can initially seem less under control from a classroom management standpoint, with students loudly but productively collaborating. Teachers also commonly struggle with the balance between letting students independently engage in inquiry and ensuring they make the right connections. For many teachers, this work necessitates a shift in instructional practice as well as classroom management strategies. To facilitate this transition, teachers need opportunities to learn about and practice new forms of instruction in low stakes settings, such as professional development, before trying them out in classrooms. The Role of Professional Development Professional development that builds expertise and, in particular, self-efficacy with new instructional practices is the most valuable. In fact, research suggests that teachers’ sense of personal self-efficacy—the degree to which they believe that they can impact student learning—strongly influenced their attitudes toward implementing new instructional practices (Guskey, 1998). Teachers with a greater sense of self-efficacy thought that new practices were more congruent with their current practices and, more importantly, less difficult to implement. High self-efficacy teachers also rated new instructional practices as more important than teachers with low self-efficacy. This work suggests that building teachers’ self-efficacy, through professional development and other forms of support, is critical to success with innovative instruction. Academic Approach offers professional development and instructional tools that support teachers in learning how to incorporate cutting-edge instructional practices, such as disciplinary inquiry. Our SAT Curriculum Toolkit includes curricular materials that engage students in skills and practices that align with disciplinary inquiry and reflect the types of reasoning that students will engage with on the SAT. The toolkit also includes professional development [...]
In Illinois, Michigan, and across the country, students and educators had been preparing for months to get ready for one day: April 10, the SAT school day administration. With so much energy and motivation cresting around test day, educators may be wondering, “What next?” Here are some other questions to consider as the school year winds down. How can we make the most of the SAT score release? Students will no doubt be anxiously awaiting their scores, which are expected to release in mid-May. As educators, consider how you can build context for your students as they anticipate their scores. If students took the PSAT/NMSQT in October, they may be interested to know that expected growth from the 11th grade PSAT to the SAT is 40 points on the composite, or 20 points on each subject score. The College Readiness Benchmarks are 480 in Evidence-based Reading and Writing and 530 in Math, and the on-track scores for the 11th grade PSAT are 460 and 510. Each college and university also reports the SAT score range of their middle 50% of admitted students. Knowing the ranges for schools like University of Illinois – Chicago (1080-1340 for the middle 50%), Michigan State University (1070-1350), Northwestern University (1480-1580), and University of Notre Dame (1410-1550) can help students build their wish lists as they prepare to apply senior year. Consider how you can use this data to announce your school-wide performance. As you analyze results, you may find encouraging statistics: Did you grow the average student’s SAT score by a greater amount than expected gains? Increase the number of students meeting or exceeding the college readiness benchmark? Improve the percent of students earning scores that allow them to access competitive colleges or scholarships? Building your understanding of the SAT scores and growth norms now can help you contextualize your school’s results compellingly when the scores are released to your students and to your community. What if students are not happy with their SAT scores? While junior spring test dates are popular for students and often tied to accountability metrics for schools, thousands of seniors and rising seniors test each year. The class of 2019, who just tested as juniors, will have the opportunity to retest if desired on August 25 or October 6. Students who are considering a senior retest should also consider their test preparation plan. Multiple tests alone do not increase SAT scores; students should plan to practice and hone their skills over the summer to get ready for test day. Student score reports include a plethora of information that can guide this preparation. For example, students receive subscores in three math domains – Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. These subscores can help students prioritize the skills that they should practice and review before test day. Educators can consider how to use this data to help students build individualized study and preparation plans that give students the best chance of increasing scores on [...]
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 [...]
“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 [...]
How can you, as an educator, make the most of each assessment your students complete? The answer is in the data the assessments provide. By carefully analyzing the data, educators can take full advantage of each test event to determine student strengths and areas for improvement, develop targeted re-teaching plans, and drive instruction in the classroom.