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

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 |2018-10-03T14:56:00+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 [...]

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

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 [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

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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