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.
Doug Mesecar, an assistant deputy secretary of education, said that officials remain confident of the value of the tutoring program but that more needs to be done to ensure quality.
"I think some providers are very effective as they work with students every day," he said. "The challenge we have is to figure out which ones they are."
Education Department officials point to a Rand Corp. study last year that found tutoring programs improved reading and math performance significantly in several large urban school systems.
In April, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced that she will use her administrative authority to promote participation in tutoring. Schools will have to improve outreach to parents about tutoring, and states will have more responsibility for ensuring that lessons meet students' needs.
Spellings also wants to require schools to prove that they've made an effort to recruit students into the tutoring before spending those funds elsewhere.
Nationwide, nearly 530,000 students -- 14 percent of those eligible -- participate, officials said. About 16,000 are in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
As schools work toward a goal of having every student proficient in reading and math by 2014, the number of children in tutoring is expected to rise. The number of providers has tripled, to more than 3,000, since 2003. Kaplan Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co., operates such tutoring programs in Maryland, Virginia and other states.
States have been slow to develop systems to gauge the effectiveness of companies and nonprofit organizations that work with students. Many schools report poor student attendance at tutoring sessions.
Some school officials say that even with those challenges, tutoring is making a difference. Chicago public schools found that students who were tutored outperformed peers in reading and math. Tutoring in Hawaii and Colorado has been linked to gains in math.
The District has not formally evaluated its tutoring programs, according to the office of State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist. Evaluations are planned or underway in California, Texas, Florida and several other states.
In Maryland, where about 11,000 students were enrolled in tutoring programs in 2006-07, school officials say they support the effort even if it isn't producing big swings in test scores. The state spent more than $10 million in federal funding on tutoring last year.
"We see this is an opportunity for students to get ahead," said Maria Lamb, director of the Maryland State Department of Education's program improvement and family support branch. Lamb stressed that early evidence shows some students made gains.
Mrs. Dowd's Teaching Service was one of two Maryland tutoring providers linked to higher 2006 reading scores. (Another was linked to higher math scores.) Eileen Dowd, a former Cleveland schoolteacher, said her tutors work with, at most, three students at a time. Children who struggle, she said, get one-on-one attention.
Dowd's tutors work on campuses in Prince George's and Baltimore counties, enabling them to have close contact with teachers, she said. "It's collaborative," she said. "They will come and say: 'Tim is having a hard time focusing. What do you think?' "
Dianne M. Piché, executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, which supports No Child Left Behind, said the law gives low-income families access to a service that middle-class and wealthy families often use to give their children an edge.
Piché said that schools and tutors should work together more closely and that after-school help should be offered in places accessible to children.
"We need to push the schools and the providers to get it right," she said.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.