Supporting Students with Learning Differences

On Tuesday, October 9th, North Avenue was thrilled to partner with Amy Romm Lockard, Founder and President of Dovetail College Consulting. Amy is a college admissions expert with over a decade of combined college consulting and high school counseling experience. In her presentation, she discussed how to approach college admissions for teens with a learning difference, mental health condition, or physical disability – and how to find success after admission as well.

Before introducing Amy, I spoke briefly around how my experience working with students with learning differences has informed the teaching philosophy of North Avenue. This blog post is adapted from my presentation.

North Avenue Education’s tutoring method aims to build a community of learners by cultivating critical thinking skills that are relevant not only to success on tests, but to all academic pursuits as students prepare for college. The path students with learning differences take to build these skills might look slightly different, but doing so is just as important. If anything, I’ve observed that students with learning differences are much more self-aware and cognizant of their learning needs than their peers. This academic maturity ought to be paired with a mentor or tutor relationship for best outcomes.

Here are a few key methods we employ when working with students with learning differences.

By first watching students complete problems in their instinctive way, tutors will better understand each student’s unique reasoning process. In a typical test prep lesson, most of the time is devoted to teaching new topics and test-taking strategies, with less time devoted to practicing these strategies – because students can conduct this reinforcement at home. However, students with learning differences often benefit from more in-session collaboration. By conducting practice problems with a student during the lesson, tutors are in a better position to adapt their lessons and techniques to the specific student’s reasoning style.

Replicating the procedures learned in a tutoring session on a real, timed test is a key component of test prep. Students who receive accommodations on the SAT or ACT – often 50% extra time or even 100% extra time on an already long exam – will be susceptible to both mental exhaustion and decision fatigue. Ensuring multiple opportunities to practice taking the test under these conditions will help develop stamina and anticipate related issues that need to be addressed in preparation. (Additionally, there are some tech solutions: North Avenue gives all our students an SAT or ACT watch. Practicing self-timing with these watches can help students self-pace to not run out of time or energy.)

Parents and tutors must recognize that even with accommodations, standardized tests may not be the best way to showcase a student’s academic competencies. North Avenue encourages families to evaluate a student’s profile holistically so as to mentor them through not only test prep but all aspects of college readiness. Students would do well to remember that keeping their GPA high, writing a killer application essay, and learning self-advocacy, organization, and other beneficial study habits are just as important as achieving strong test scores!

At North Avenue Education, we invite all new students to our office for a free, 30-minute consult with me. During the consult, we can discuss a personalized approach to supporting your student with their individualized goals. If you’d like to discuss how North Avenue can guide your student’s unique reasoning processes to success on standardized tests and beyond, please don’t hesitate to contact us!


So… the ACT now has six sections?

Students who took the September 8th ACT were surprised to see an extra section. In addition to the usual English, Math, Reading, Science, and (optional) Writing, they were given a shorter, sixth section. Some students got another helping of math, some read an extra passage, and some confronted an unexpected dosage of science.

This extra, experimental section has been administered to random students since June, but it now looks like it’s a mainstay of the exam. ACT first announced this change in a briefing sent to test administrators, alongside information about changes to extended time procedures:

“We are expanding the Tryout program, which helps shape the future of the ACT. On National test dates, examinees testing under standard timing conditions, whether testing with or without writing, should expect to take a fifth test after Test 4. The fifth test is 20 minutes long and doesn’t impact the examinee’s ACT Composite score or subject test scores. Examinees testing with extended time will not take the fifth test.”

Because this Tryout section will not affect scores, many students may want to nap or take a brain break during this section. The rare student may feel an altruistic desire to help the ACT conduct research, joining ACT’s call to action to help improve the test for future test-takers.

However, we caution students from the mindset that this is a throwaway. As it is currently administered, the Tryout ACT section is easily to identify – it’s only 20 minutes long and comes at the end. (Another admissions exam, the SSAT, retains an abbreviated experimental section at the end of the test as well.) But the pre-2016 SAT used to have a rotating experimental section nearly identical to the others, and continued to employ one for a subset of test-takers after the 2016 redesign. It’s entirely possible that either ACT’s Tryout section or SAT’s experimental section will come to resemble the other scored sections. In that case, misidentifying an experimental section would put your score at jeopardy.

That being said, the Tryout section may take an extra 20 minutes of mental endurance, so prepare accordingly. You got this!

From an industry perspective, this mandatory “Tryout program” has a couple of implications:

  • ACT is learning from College Board’s June SAT mistake. ACT wants to research new ways of writing questions and administering each of their sections, presumably so that they can create reliable new material in a faster, more cost-effective way.
  • This may also provide more predictable exams: test prep professionals who have seen many iterations of an ACT test generally agree that the difficulty of the ACT math section has been wildly unpredictable of late. While the curve that converts a raw score into a scale score ostensibly ensures fairness across test dates, it’s likely the ACT prefers to eliminate the variability and deliver a test of similar difficulty each time.
  • ACT may be trying out different content emphases or redesign test sections – in the face of pressure to become a true achievement test (rather than a norm-referenced test) they may want to prioritize certain components over others. However, they need to know exactly how students will perform on these variations so they can ensure the integrity of the ACT, and in particular the percentile breakdown of ACT scores, across different graduating classes of students
  • As The Princeton Review’s blog speculated in May, experimental sections give the test-makers not only additional data, but (in dire straits) additional student performance to use in the case of invalidated “real” sections. Given the SAT hiccups this year, we are not surprised to see both College Board and ACT begin to build fail-safe into their test designs.
  • Lastly, we expect big moves from the ACT in the coming years – since 2015, they’ve closed 10 deals in which the company has invested in, acquired, or formed strategic partnerships with educational companies. The latest one was Open Assessment Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup that offers open-source tools for building and delivering digital tests. The ACT may go entirely digital, and they may expand to other other markets. Just like Facebook and Google, harvesting student data (which, in this case, data about student performance on ACT-like problems) is a valuable commodity in this game.


What’s up with the August 25 SAT?

In June, College Board delivered an unusually “easy” test, resulting in more students getting more answers correct. To distribute scores in a predictable manner, the curve they used to convert raw scores into scale scores was particularly unforgiving: students overall saw lower scaled scores than they expected, especially those scoring in the upper percentiles. For example, a student who got two answers wrong in June received a 750 in math, whereas two incorrect answers on a previous exam may have equated to a 770-780.

After the #RescoreJuneSAT drama, we’re sure College Board was hoping for a straightforward and scandal-free August administration. However, news has come out that the test administered on Aug 25 may have had overlapping questions with an exam taken by students in China last October. Since October 2017, these reports claimed, tutoring centers in China had been using the test in their study materials.

It’s unlikely any test-takers had answers memorized, as they could not have anticipated the repetition. Rather, the advantage depends on how recently a student reviewed the leaked test. Familiarity with a reading passage can have huge benefits for performance since a student is already aware of the context and may remember some key arguments. Thus, seeing the test beforehand can be a huge advantage on a time-bound, difficult exam.

How did College Board end up in this debacle? Jed Applerouth muses that College Board likely pulled the test it had planned to administer in August in the wake of the June test. Standardized tests are difficult and expensive to write – so College Board couldn’t write a brand new test by August 25th; instead, they chose to administer an exam they had previously administered in Asia, banking on providing a proven exam with normalized curve. However, by solving one problem, they created a host of others.

So, what now? Here are a few important takeaways:

  • Study from official materials! North Avenue education primarily use official SAT and ACT materials, including some previously administered exams. In addition to being the most reliable sources, you never know if College Board might recycle parts of an exam again.
  • Variations such as the ones seen in June and August are normal. There’s no telling how many issues like these have gone unexposed – not to mention the number of unpredictable events that can happen to individual students (e.g., poor sleep, bad mood, closed test centers, traffic-induced stress, etc). The only solution is to be as prepared as possible and make a tutoring plan that involves re-testing.
  • If indeed some students studied from the test and it worked to their advantage, the curve used by College Board may be different than it would’ve been otherwise. We can’t know exactly how it will affect the results of this test. While some students are calling for College Board to #RescoreAugustSAT, allow the option to cancel scores with no fee or penalty, or offer an added test date before Oct 6, it remains unknown what College Board’s exact response will be.
  • Jed Applerouth is probably right – the ultimate solution to the problems of leaked and recycled tests is an online, computer-based exam. ACT anticipated this issue in 2016, when it announced plans to administer computer-based exams for all international ACT test dates. It tabled that plan for a year, but sources say it’s set to follow through on the promise starting this September. We believe College Board isn’t far behind.

Scores will begin to be released on September 7th. If you took the Aug 25 SAT and are affected, we’d love to work with you to make a plan. North Avenue Education is here to help you prepare, plan a testing timeline, and be ready for any curveballs that College Board may throw your way!