Standardized Tests Can Promote Rigor

Well before the current outbreak of COVID-19, skeptics questioned the value of standardized testing as a college admissions requirement. Some argue this pandemic, however, will be the final nail in the testing coffin. As this outlet has pointed out, the majority of colleges are now test optional or test blind, and headlines proclaim “the beginning of the end” for standardized tests or (put more simply) “Kill the SAT.” There is another side to this story, however, that should not be left out: standardized tests can  -- when used constructively and administered safely  -- drive higher standards in education and more rigorous, targeted instruction for students in essential college readiness skills. Too often, standardized tests are created as a single moment in students' lives: they take the test, they receive a score and they move on. Instead, we have found that college entrance exams can be used as powerful learning opportunities to help students master academic skills. These skills help students succeed both on and beyond the tests  -- in high school, in college and in their careers. The conversation about college readiness and quality of instruction should include a careful and intentional review of student performance on standardized tests. Indeed, we believe that standardized tests can be a valuable tool for educators to better prepare students for college-level work. With continued remote learning anticipated well into the 2020-21 school year, we predict a continued amplification effect to extended summer learning loss. The increased time out of the physical classroom has led to research predicting increased losses in foundational skills for students returning this fall, a phenomenon now commonly called the “COVID slide.” Current research predicts students may retain only 50 percent of the gains they made in math during the 2019-20 school year, which was abruptly cut short as the nation went into lockdown. In such a unique year, the value of standardized testing to assess year-over-year trends in student gains and losses may be a more valuable instrument to educators than ever. In its May research and policy brief, ACT shared its student performance estimates based on historical data and predicted 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 What does it add up to? 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. This seemingly small decrease in ACT scores can in fact indicate a large effect on overall student achievement and college readiness, admissions and scholarship eligibility across districts and states. With months of remote learning ahead, the deficit may grow. Beyond just serving as a measure of current achievement, high-quality tests create gravitational pull toward [...]

By |2021-09-10T15:20:37+00:00August 20, 2020|ACT, SAT|Comments Off on Standardized Tests Can Promote Rigor

State Testing Waivers & Helping Students Prepare

Dear Academic Approach Families: Some important updates today that will likely push standardized testing windows further out in terms of time and further encourage the delivery of these tests online. State Testing Waivers Since the White House announced that the Federal Department of Education will not enforce state mandated testing School Year 2019-2020, State Boards of Education across the country are seeking to waive state accountability criteria. This will likely mean many schools will not provide federal or district funded end-of-year tests, including the scheduled SAT or ACT provided as part of the school day testing program in spring 2020. It seems likely that schools will offer additional school day test options later this spring or in the fall, and students will also have the option to test on national Saturday test dates once they resume. Currently, the next scheduled national test dates are June 13th for the ACT and June 6th for the SAT. Helping Schools and Students Prepare Though much is up in the air for our current juniors in terms of the college admissions timeline, there is plenty of time ahead to ensure they are prepared both for college admissions and college-level coursework. With many students lacking a federally, state, or district-funded college admissions test this school year, they are likely looking for alternative testing dates prior to fall admissions. Students can test well into fall of their senior year and still use that score for consideration in college applications. For regular decision admission, most colleges will accept scores from as late as the December test. The Future is Online With ACT's already planned expansion of online testing at school-based test sites in September 2020 and College Board's move to offer secure AP tests in-home in spring 2020, it's also possible the testing agencies may offer more flexible options to students throughout this summer and fall. We'll keep you informed of changes as they are announced. Be well, Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

By |2020-03-24T11:12:00+00:00March 24, 2020|ACT, Letter, SAT|Comments Off on State Testing Waivers & Helping Students Prepare

The Move to Online Testing

The Necessary Move to Online Testing With schools moving to remote learning in the last few weeks, more and more education activities previously thought to only be effectively delivered in-person have moved online. On Friday, College Board announced the first-ever at-home administration of the AP exams. Critics have questioned the validity of these new exams, though students overwhelmingly wanted the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the material they’d spent the year learning. With the limitations put in place by necessary social distancing and stay-at-home measures, these at-home tests likely provide the best possible option in the next few months. Accelerating an Already Growing Trend The online AP exams won’t be the first online tests College Board or ACT have offered—they’ve provided online (though not remote) administrations of the SAT and ACT for the last several years. The test organizations have increasingly used this option in the last decade to increase security for international testers as well as provide another testing option for district and state-funded mandatory, school-day tests. ACT recently announced the first online testing option for national test date testers, signing up individually on Saturdays, as an option (at available testing sites). The move raises some big questions: Who benefits from online testing options? Are the scores comparable to pencil and paper testing? How can students prepare? Who has Access? Taking the ACT and SAT won’t typically be the first-time students will encounter technology in an educational setting. Indeed, the use of ed tech has increased significantly in recent years, as devices and high-quality tools have become available in more and more schools. Ultimately, students with increased familiarity and comfort working through computer-based assessments benefit from the online testing option. Access to those tools in schools is not distributed equally. Predictably, higher-income students have more access to educational technology tools and devices in their schools. New Schools’ recent survey found that while about 8 in 10 students have access to either devices on shared classroom carts or in classroom libraries (and around a third of students also have 1-to-1 devices available in their schools), there was variability in student groups. Students from low-income households, black students, students attending urban school districts, and students in the south were the least likely to report having their own device to use in a school setting. The decreased familiarity and experience for high-need students raises questions of equity in using online testing in a high-stakes setting like college entrance exams. The remote, at-home testing option may exacerbate issues of access and equity. Around 10% of Americans don’t use the internet at all, with higher quantities in low-income and rural areas. College Board is working to offer options to those students for AP tests, though the extent and success of those options is not yet clear. Does Test Format Matter? After considering equity and access, it’s worth digging into the validity of these online exams. The AP tests this year will take a very different format than they have in the past (only 45 [...]

By |2020-03-23T16:33:19+00:00March 23, 2020|Academic Approach, ACT, SAT|Comments Off on The Move to Online Testing

ACT or SAT: Which Test Is Right for You?

At Academic Approach, we work with families and schools across Chicagoland to support students from all backgrounds to grow scores, skills, and confidence both on and beyond standardized tests. An important part of this work involves a choice: to ACT or SAT — which test should I take? The ACT or SAT can make Hamlets of us all, leaving us wondering what to do, what path to take. Either test is accepted by every college and university, so it’s really a matter of the right fit between the student and test. To help students decide, here is some direction on which test can be a better fit. Reading Comprehension: Marathoner or Sprinter? When reading, some students are more like marathoners — deliberate, calculating, cautious in decision making. Others prefer a sprinter’s approach — reading and reacting quickly. The SAT features passages with greater text complexity, but students are granted 43 percent more time per question for thoughtful analysis over 65 minutes. If students prefer the extra time to arrive at decisions, then the SAT is for them. However, if students prefer to glean meaning quickly and make decisions on a quick 35-minute sprint, then the ACT is the better choice. Mathematical Reasoning: Elbow Grease or Calculator Work? While SAT and ACT math cover similar material, the SAT assesses demanding algebraic problem-solving and dense word problems. The ACT focuses more on geometry formulae. The ACT also allows use of a calculator throughout while the SAT does not allow calculator use for 20 math questions and has 13 student-produced-response questions with no multiple-choice answers. In short, if students enjoy grinding out answers with a little elbow grease — multi-step algebra problems without help from the calculator — then the SAT is the better option. If students benefit more from memory of key formulae and calculator use in arriving at answers, the ACT is the preferred path to math. Science Reasoning: A Full Serving or an Appetizer? While the SAT and the ACT both assess science reasoning through data presentations, the ACT features a standalone science section. On the ACT, science is always the fourth section, while on the SAT, 35 science-related questions are spread across reading, grammar, and math. So, if students are fond of science, and enjoy a full serving, then the ACT is the right choice. If students prefer some science appetizers, small servings throughout the test, then they have an appetite for SAT science. English Grammar: Apples to Apples The dilemma — to ACT or SAT? — is simplified when it comes to English grammar, which is assessed largely the same way on both tests. Both assess usage and mechanics skills (e.g., sentence construction, punctuation) and rhetorical skills (e.g., essay composition principles). There is no avoiding a healthy and necessary assessment of your student’s college-readiness proofreading and copy-editing skills! Resolving the Drama If you are still racked with indecision, let us help you decide which is better for your student through our complimentary testing and analysis. Try them both and [...]

By |2019-10-02T09:41:11+00:00October 2, 2019|ACT, SAT|Comments Off on ACT or SAT: Which Test Is Right for You?

The PSAT/NMSQT: Its Purpose & Benefits

The following is a repost of an essay written by our founder, Matthew Pietrafetta, for the blog last year. As the 2018 PSAT/NMSQT is just around the corner, we hope this is a helpful reminder of what the test is and the benefits of a good score. The PSAT/NMSQT is upon us! This College Board exam for 10th and 11th graders isn’t just a preliminary version of the exam they will take to qualify for college entrance. The PSAT is a big deal, not just a pre-big-deal – aiming for a strong PSAT score helps students (and their parents) do three critical things: predict, qualify, and learn.   Predicting performance with the PSAT Since its 2016 revision, the PSAT/NMSQT has become a better-than-ever predictor of the SAT. In almost every way, the PSAT looks, reads, and feels like a full-length SAT, covering nearly identical content in almost the same amount of time. Because of this, a strong PSAT score helps predict a strong SAT score. Evidence-based Reading & Writing PSAT’s Reading is almost identical to SAT’s, except PSAT Reading is five questions fewer and five minutes shorter.   PSAT’s Writing & Language is the same as SAT’s. Mathematics PSAT’s no-calculator section is three questions fewer than SATs but offers the same amount of time. PSAT’s calculator section features seven questions fewer in ten fewer minutes. PSAT Essay The SAT optional essay is NOT offered at all on the PSAT. The table below offers a side-by-side comparison of the structure and content of the two exams.   In short, the PSAT is only 15 questions fewer and 15 minutes shorter than the SAT (not counting the essay of course). Good News for Students The close comparison of the PSAT and SAT is good news for students. From both a content and experience standpoint, taking the PSAT prepares students for both the material covered on the full-length SAT as well as the experience of sitting for a lengthy and rigorous standardized test. A strong PSAT score predicts similar performance on the SAT. As a predictor, the PSAT can help students year over year. Because the new PSAT system offers testing from 8th grade to 11th grade if a school district offers that testing, a student can have a transparent view of where he or she is tracking towards 11th grade. Qualifying for scholarships with the PSAT A strong PSAT score can also help students earn recognition, and sometimes scholarship dollars, as either a commended scholar or a national merit scholar.   Each state has two cut-off thresholds (one for commended scholars, one for national merit) to qualify for these designations, which are determined by the fall of senior year. Many colleges offer scholarships associated with these honors, though PSAT scores are not typically provided to colleges as part of the application. See additional details in the table below. Learning to improve with the PSAT The most important function of the PSAT is to help students learn. So what’s the best way to [...]

By |2018-10-09T17:42:52+00:00October 9, 2018|One-on-One Tutoring, PSAT, SAT, Special|0 Comments

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 [...]

The SAT & ACT Essays: Sometimes a Requirement, Always an Opportunity

"Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it."  At Academic Approach, we get asked all the time, “is the essay optional?” The answer is yes, but also no. Technically, the essay on both the ACT and SAT is optional – you can elect to take either test with or without the essay. In terms of scoring, the essay is always a stand-alone score, so it will not impact the composite or overall score of the test.    If that's the case, why then should you elect to take the essay? The answer to that question really depends on the colleges and universities a student is applying to. While you can take the ACT or SAT without the essay, some schools require the essay. It's important that you take the essay each time you take an official test in case you want to apply to one of these schools. The last thing you want to do is retake the test after you have already achieved your goal score simply because you need the essay.    If you know that you will only be applying to schools that do not require the essay, you can choose not to take the essay. That is assuming, however, that you will have selected all of your schools at the time of your first test. Unless you can guarantee that you will not add any other schools to your list – and who really can months before they even start their application – our advice is that it's better to have the essay and not need it than need it and not have it.   I's worth noting that there is a growing movement among colleges to drop the essay as a requirement for admission, but this is not a pervasive practice yet.   What are the essays like?   ACT   The ACT essay gives students 40 minutes to read a prompt, outline, and write an expository essay. The prompt will provide three points of view for students to evaluate and interpret. After asking students to synthesize those ideas, they are asked to form an opinion of their own.  While writing an essay in 40 minutes may sound daunting, it's important to remember that graders will be taking those constraints into account. Students are not expected to produce a perfectly written piece, but rather, a piece that is clear and coherent.    SAT   Similar to the ACT essay, the SAT asks students to construct a persuasive essay in 50 minutes.  The purpose of the essay, however, is to analyze how an author structures a given text, taking note of their arguments and style.  A learning opportunity  The learning opportunity these essays present is valuable. Most students do not take a targeted essay composition course in high school; instead, they pick up essay writing strategies teacher by teacher. Taking students through a focused curriculum on persuasive writing strategies for crafting a thesis, an introduction, a counter argument, and a conclusion often answers a host of questions they've had about their own academic writing and gives them more tools for success on and beyond the test.   Many students wonder what they will get out of preparing for the essay. Aside from the obvious benefit of an improved score, the real value is the ability to practice adapting to different types of writing prompts. Throughout high school and college (not [...]

By |2018-08-07T19:26:41+00:00August 7, 2018|ACT, Essay, One-on-One Tutoring, SAT, Special, Test Prep|2 Comments

Should I Retake the SAT or ACT?

After students and families anxiously log in to their ACT and College Board accounts on score release day, the first question many will ask is whether they should retest. Of course, there are always students who are exceedingly happy with their score, and they should celebrate by putting the ACT and SAT behind them. Others know nearly immediately that they’re unhappy with their scores and will certainly be retaking them. But what about those in the middle? How do you know if you should be happy with your score and not trying for more? To help inform your decision making, let’s explore several scenarios. The student who “takes it cold” A good number of students—in all likelihood a majority—will take an official ACT or SAT without any preparation. They may scroll through a website to learn the structure of the test or page through a guide one afternoon at a nearby bookstore. For these students, test day is an almost entirely novel experience. The timing of the test often proves more difficult in proctored conditions. Students typically experience fatigue and exhaustion especially on the Reading and Science sections at the end of the test. Sometimes too, students have adverse reactions to the pressure of test day and make silly mistakes—incomplete questions, mis-bubbling, and mental mistakes. In most cases, these students should consider testing again. One or more of the aforementioned factors likely influenced them on test day, and consequently, the results may not reflect students’ full aptitude. Scores instead reflect the particular nuances on that particular test day in that particular testing environment—nuances that otherwise may not be accounted for. While some argue that this may be a more realistic snapshot of a student’s aptitude, the intricacies and content of the test prove otherwise. For example, grammar—a topic rarely covered in high school English—is covered extensively on both the ACT and SAT. Without at least some instruction, scores likely reflect a lack of content exposure rather than a lack of aptitude. In order to gain the most from retesting after taking one cold, students should pursue a study plan to help them focus on areas of need and aim for optimal growth in areas of strength. Whether through self-study, a classroom setting, or one-on-one tutoring, students will produce scores that more accurately reflect their abilities after preparation. Without additional study, students may repeat their initial experience only subject to chance differences in the testing experience. A prepared student’s first test Before taking an official ACT or SAT, many students will spend weeks or months preparing. Through self-study, classroom instruction, or one-on-one tutoring, they learn the structure and content of the test. They master time management and find methods for approaching the various sections. The process ideally also involves a combination of homework and practice tests to keep students engaged with material and standardized testing leading up to test day. Prepared students like these should expect scores that are consistent with their practice to this point—particularly their performance on any full-length [...]

By |2018-06-20T15:50:00+00:00June 20, 2018|ACT, One-on-One Tutoring, SAT, Special, Test Prep|0 Comments

Summer Learning and Tutoring

Summer Learning Happens So Fast Summer is nearly here and, as students get through their finals and AP tests, it can be hard to convince them that summer learning is an opportunity rather than a chore. Depending on the individual student’s strengths, goals, and timeline, summer tutoring can be optimal for ACT or SAT preparation. Test Dates to Target There are several dates remaining to take the ACT or SAT in 2018 for students to consider: These dates may be more or less valuable depending on your class year, as well as several other factors: The summer and early fall test dates can be terrific opportunities for rising juniors to wrap up their standardized test preparation before the winter holidays and the hectic schedule of junior year classes and extracurriculars. The remaining 2018 test dates are critical for rising seniors to lock in their test scores before sending in college applications. Students who have yet to take a test can utilize the summer for a comprehensive introduction/overview. Students who have official scores already, but who want to try for a bit more growth, can review material they’ve already covered previously for deeper understanding, as well as incorporate more advanced content and skills from their junior year studies.   A Focus on Math One of the factors to consider in designing a student’s summer test preparation plan is the student’s most recently completed classroom math level. The ACT and SAT both cover math content up to and including trigonometry. However, there are a limited number of questions that require this content knowledge, so students shoring up their foundational math skills can make terrific gains without covering the most challenging material on the tests. Summer tutoring can help a student to close any gaps in previous math knowledge, such as geometry, while connecting more advanced math skills to the student’s foundational skills. This leads not only to score growth, but also to deeper math learning that can be applied in the next school year’s math class and beyond. Building Comprehension Tutors and students can make great use of the summer months by building comprehension skills, which often take more time to develop. The deeper comprehension skills required for success on the reading and science passages can benefit from early intensive focus while math and grammar content knowledge are being refreshed and developed throughout the summer and subsequent school year. There are strong opportunities for growth available throughout the test preparation process before advanced algebra and trigonometry are addressed in students’ math classes. The ACT’s Science section and the SAT’s focus on historical documents are examples of areas that students should be thinking about early and often. Comprehension ability and individualized annotation techniques are tools that students can develop during their summer tutoring and then utilize in the fall (and beyond). The Advantages of Summer Tutoring Another consideration is your student’s school-year extracurricular commitments. Grades are critically important in the semesters before college applications are due, and the added stress of a big [...]

SAT Subject Tests

If you’ve heard anything about SAT Subject Tests lately, chances are it’s that fewer and fewer colleges and universities are requiring them as part of a student’s application. That raises several questions: should I take the SAT subject tests? do the SAT Subject Tests still hold value for college-bound students? Is it still worth the time and effort a student must put into preparing for these exams? The answers, as a good test taker might predict, are ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’ In this post, we’ll take a look at the enduring value of the SAT Subject Tests, when students should consider taking them, and all you need to know about the SAT subject test preparation. What Are SAT Subject Tests? SAT Subject Tests are college admission exams on specific subjects. This definition is according to the College Board - the national organization that administers the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP exams. Formerly called the SAT IIs, the one-hour SAT Subject Tests come in a variety of flavors offering something for nearly everyone: Math, Literature, History, Sciences, and a surprising number of languages. The number of questions on the respective tests varies from 55 to 95, and that number can change for different tests of the same subject (e.g. not every English Literature test has 55 questions; some have 60 or more). Regardless of length, each test receives a score out of 800. That score is computed the way the SAT used to be: students get a point for each correct answer, while partial points are deducted for each incorrect answer. More on that later. SAT Subject Tests are offered on the same days as the SAT—though not all tests are offered on all dates, so students should check with the College Board. Additionally, students can take up to three Subject Tests on a single test date. The Value of SAT Subject Tests Because the colleges requiring or recommending SAT Subject Tests tend to be the most selective, the question students should be asking themselves is not “Will SAT Subject Tests be required,” but instead, “Will SAT Subject Test scores be considered as a part of my application?” If the answer is yes, then it’s a safe bet that other students will be submitting them with their applications. Like it or not, the college admissions process is a competitive one. Students have a limited amount of time and space to make their case to a school that they are not just a good fit, but the right fit. While competition brings out the best in some, not every student responds well to this kind of motivation. Still, these students should consider taking SAT Subject Tests, as they’re a great way to show a prospective school a student’s interest in (and dedication to) a subject. There are a couple of powerful reasons to show such dedication: This can reinforce an interest expressed elsewhere in a student’s application. For example, let’s say that a student wants to be considered for a college’s robotics [...]

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