Summer Reading 101: The Essential Guide

As summer approaches, critical reading will be essential for continued academic progress. The best way to grow as a reader is to read more challenging texts. We've put together this recommended reading list--separated by genre and level--to help students select rigorous, challenging texts to engage with at home.   DOWNLOAD THE GUIDE View Our Other Resources

By |2022-02-04T15:20:48+00:00June 16, 2020|Academic Approach, One-on-One Tutoring, School Programs|Comments Off on Summer Reading 101: The Essential Guide

Communicating with Students About the PSAT/NMSQT

As high school teachers and administrators, you understand the importance of the PSAT/NMSQT. As standardized test experts, we also get it. Students, however, have widely varying information and opinions about the PSAT/NMSQT, and it usually falls to educators to help get them on the same page. With the big test on the horizon, here are several questions you may get from students and how to answer them. What’s the difference between the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT? NMSQT stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and this version of the PSAT is given to juniors during the fall semester. Taking the PSAT/NMSQT your junior year might make you eligible for National Merit distinctions or scholarships. The National Merit Scholarship Program honors the students with the top 50,000 PSAT scores across the United States, but it’s not required for admission to college. The PSAT 10 is administered to sophomores in spring semester. The only difference between the PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT is that students who take the PSAT 10 will not be considered for the National Merit Scholarship Program (you must be a junior to qualify). What’s a good score? It depends on what you mean by “good.” The PSAT is scored between 320 and 1520, with a range of 160-760 for both Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW). For reference, the SAT is scored between 400 and 1600, with a range of 200-800 for both Math and EBRW. The range for PSAT scores is slightly lower to account for the fact that it's a somewhat easier test than the SAT. The score you receive on the PSAT indicates the score you would get if you took the SAT instead on that same day. For example, a 500 in Math on the PSAT is a 500 in Math on the SAT. College Board’s College Readiness Benchmark is a 1010 Composite (480 EBRW and 530 Math). Benchmarks look at a range of courses across a range of institutions and determine when a typical student will get a C in those courses. In 2017, the national average PSAT score was a 1015. Based on the benchmark and average, a score of 1020 or above would be considered above average or “good”. But considering the PSAT is primarily practice, any score is a good score, as it allows you to understand what you need to improve for the SAT. When should I start practicing? Another "depends." If you’re within three months of the exam, go ahead and practice. It’s always a good idea to do a trial run before you sit for the one that counts… even if the one that counts is a trial run itself! However, if you’re over three months away, you’re better off preparing by working hard in your classes. You should pick up a lot of the skills you’ll need to be successful there. Don’t be discouraged with your scores, even if they’re below average. Many students haven’t yet learned a lot of the math that shows up on [...]

By |2022-02-04T15:43:06+00:00October 3, 2018|PSAT SP, School Programs, 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 [...]

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 [...]

Incorporating and Adapting to Inquiry-Based Instruction

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 [...]

SAT Scores: What Teachers Can Do After Test Day

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 [...]

College-Level Rigor in the High School Classroom: SAT Curriculum, Common Core and College Readiness

SAT, Common Core, and College Readiness No teacher, at the beginning of their career, enters the field to teach test prep. Likewise, no student shows up for their English or math class expecting an SAT prep class. They see performance on a test like the SAT as fundamentally distinct from performance in the classroom. However, College Board’s redesign of the SAT in 2016 sought to directly address these concerns. The SAT assesses the same competencies that teachers seek to foster in their students: core college-readiness academic skills, problem solving abilities, and understanding of complex relationships. To better align with high school curriculum, the SAT explicitly aligned itself with the Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by forty-two states. This alignment creates a win-win situation for students and teachers. Students have a vested interest in their SAT scores to improve their college prospects, and teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance on the Common Core State Standards. When the test assesses what is important to teachers, preparation isn’t merely “test prep”—it’s key academic instruction to prepare students for the challenges they will face in college. And the College Board isn’t making this claim without some evidence to back it up (just like we’d require of a student!). Their early predictive validity studies show a moderate correlation in both verbal and math between SAT scores and first-year college GPA. They’ll expand this analysis to a more significant set of students in 2018 to see how robust the relationship is. High-Value Skills in SAT Curriculum It’s hard to connect the esoteric idea of the SAT with the concrete skills teachers are trying to promote in their classrooms every day. However, when teachers first look at those skills most frequently assessed on the SAT—those most important to predicting college readiness—it’s often an “aha!” moment. Reading Reading on standardized tests has long been thought of merely as assessing reading speed rather than comprehension. The SAT seeks to combat this perception by providing more time per passage and per question than it has in the past (and substantially more than ACT, an explicitly speeded test, provides). The test also brings in texts more aligned with what already exists in the classroom. The rigorous texts have an average Lexile of around 1300 L and include texts students might encounter in a history or literature class. Authors have included Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Charlotte Bronte. Beyond the texts themselves, the SAT is asking students to perform tasks that most teachers would applaud—citing claims with evidence. One of the most common mistakes in student critical thinking is to make a claim about a particular text without appropriate supporting material. The SAT addresses this head on with their “command of evidence” items, like the one below from one of College Board’s released test: Command of evidence questions make up 10 items on every SAT—approximately a fifth of the text. This skill is a clear analogue to Common Core’s Anchor Standard #1 in reading: “Read closely [...]

By |2018-02-12T16:10:46+00:00February 12, 2018|Assessments, SAT SP, School Programs, Special|0 Comments

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

Getting the Most Out of Your Score: Learning From the PSAT

What is the PSAT? The PSAT is a practice SAT administered by the College Board and available to students in grades 8 through 11, with the PSAT 8/9 offered to 8th and 9th graders and the PSAT 10/PSAT NMSQT (identical tests) offered to 10th and 11th graders. The PSAT serves 3 important purposes: it helps students predict, learn, and qualify.   Predicting with the PSAT Since its 2016 revision, the PSAT 10/PSAT NMSQT has become a better-than-ever instrument at predicting the SAT. This is true in part because the PSAT now comes very close to a full-length SAT, covering nearly identical content in almost the same amount of time. Evidence-based Reading & Writing PSAT’s Reading is almost identical to SAT’s, except PSAT Reading is 5 questions fewer and 5 minutes shorter.   PSAT’s Writing & Language is the same as SAT’s. Mathematics PSAT’s no-calculator section is 3 questions fewer than SAT’s but offers same amount of time. PSAT’s calculator section features 7 questions fewer in 10 fewer minutes. The Essay The SAT optional essay is NOT offered at all on the PSAT. The table below offers a side-by-side of the construct and content of both exams.   15 questions, 15 minutes In short, the PSAT is only 15 questions fewer and 15 minutes shorter than the SAT, in terms of the material that contributes to a student’s composite score. Note: the SAT essay does NOT impact the student’s composite score, so its absence on the PSAT is not critical. The table below offers another view of the close comparison between the PSAT & SAT. 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 a student for the material covered on the full-length SAT as well as the experience of sitting for a lengthy exam and concentrating on rigorous academic material for approximately 3 hours. It wasn’t always this way! Before the 2016 revision, the PSAT from 2005 to 2015 was approximately one half the length of the full-length SAT, denying a student a complete picture of the marathon test-taking experience that the SAT demanded. What’s more, learning from the PSAT is possible  year over year. Because the 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. In fact, College Board has tiered the scoring on the test to help make a more accurate prediction of exactly where the student would be on the SAT at that point in their academic career.    The detail below shows the tiered scoring of the PSAT from 8th grade through the 11th grade PSAT/NMSQT. Learning from the PSAT Learning from the PSAT is the most important reason for students to take the test. As a low-stakes diagnostic test, it can be directional, putting students on a productive path towards focused [...]

By |2022-02-04T15:43:16+00:00December 12, 2017|Assessments, 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