Mandated Tutoring Not Helping Md., Va. Scores

Education watchdog Jack Jennings said the mandate
Education watchdog Jack Jennings said the mandate "isn't helping poor kids." ( File photo)
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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

Free tutoring that federal law prescribes to help students at struggling schools has yielded little or no positive effect on student test scores in Virginia, Maryland and several other states, according to early evaluations.

Under the six-year-old No Child Left Behind law, certain schools in which too many students fail math or reading exams must use federal funds to offer after-school or weekend tutoring to students from low-income families. In the 2006-07 school year, $595 million went to the fast-growing industry of for-profit and nonprofit tutoring providers. But it remains unclear whether or how much those extra lessons are boosting student performance, even though the law envisions them as a key way to narrow achievement gaps.

In Virginia, researchers compared the performance last year of students with identical or very similar math scores in 2006 and found that those who were tutored did no better than their peers, according to an analysis the state Department of Education released in April. In a similar comparison of reading scores, students who were tutored lagged behind those who weren't.

Studies in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Kentucky also showed that the mandated tutoring, known as "supplemental educational services," didn't bump up test scores.

"This isn't helping poor kids," said Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the Center on Education Policy in the District, which monitors implementation of the federal law. "All it's doing is taking money out of classrooms and putting it into the hands of private companies."

Jennings said that states don't have the capacity to monitor tutors effectively and that too many lessons aren't designed to build on the skills students learn in school.

In Maryland, students served by most of the state's tutoring providers in 2006 did not outperform students with similar academic profiles who weren't tutored. But students in three of the 29 state-approved programs did make bigger gains.

Steven M. Ross, executive director of the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis, which is conducting evaluations in Virginia, Maryland and several other states, said parents and educators generally give tutors good ratings. But, he said, "we're not seeing a big blip on the radar screen of raising standardized test" scores.

Ross cautioned that the assessments involve a relatively small sample of students. He said that tutoring might be helping them learn but that the help might not immediately translate into higher test scores. Some students who have fallen far behind, he said, could make progress but still fail grade-level tests. Or students might need more time with tutors.

"If I pour one gallon of gasoline in my car . . . I don't say it doesn't work if I don't go 100 miles," Ross said.

Turning to private tutors when public schools fall short is a key provision of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Under the law, schools that don't meet test performance goals for two consecutive years must allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools. Schools that fail to make progress for three years must offer private tutoring to children from low-income families. Those that continue to fall short face further sanctions.

As Congress considers revamping the law, the evaluations will fuel debate over whether tutoring is a wise investment.

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