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NCLB Outrages

Tutoring didn't pay off in city, analysis finds

Ohanian Comment: Maybe te moral of this story is that if schools offer a curriculum of test prep, students reach a saturation level and more test prep after school isn't going to do any good.

by Steve Brandt

The dominant provider of required after-school tutoring in Minneapolis didn't produce any better reading gains last year than those for students who skipped tutoring.

That's the result of a new district analysis that scrutinized gains by elementary students who got after-school help that must be offered under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

District researcher David Heistad called the results "very disappointing." State officials, who approve tutoring providers, said they plan to review his findings.

The district gave special scrutiny to the Education Station program offered by Catapult Learning, a division of the company once known as Sylvan Learning. That's because 71 percent of the low-income Minneapolis students who elected tutoring and similar help under the law last year got it from Catapult. Catapult was paid $1.7 million last year by the district for tutoring 1,266 students.

"We paid them a lot of money, and the results are not what one would hope for in terms of student achievement," said Sarah Snapp, who coordinates district programs under No Child Left Behind.

"We want to be able to show results," said Jeffrey Cohen, Education Station's president. He said first-year start-up factors may have affected the program last year. But he also took issue with the district's analysis.

The No Child Left Behind law requires districts to offer supplemental teaching to low-income students at high-poverty schools that fail to make adequate progress on testing goals for three years.

Besides Minneapolis, which is required to offer the services for 16 schools this year, other districts where students qualify for tutoring include St. Paul, Osseo and Columbia Heights. Catapult serves a handful of St. Paul students and doesn't work in the two suburban districts.

How the study was done

Catapult said in a summary report to the district that its students registered gains in all areas of reading and math on Catapult's assessments.

But the Minneapolis study compared the 569 Catapult-tutored students who had standardized tests before and after their tutoring against an equal sample of eligible students who didn't use tutoring. The students were matched on at least seven factors, such as grade, gender, pretest results, poverty and home language.

Heistad found no statistically significant differences in reading gains made by the two groups.

Cohen said that one of the strongest indicators of success for tutors is the amount of time a student is instructed. The district said Catapult's students averaged more than 36 hours of tutoring, well above the 20 hours Catapult considers a breakpoint for significant gains. But Catapult said nearly one-quarter of the students it tutored showed up fewer than 20 hours. Tutoring also didn't start until nearly halfway into the school year.

Catapult's share declines

Minneapolis paid a total of $2.65 million in federal money last year to its after-school tutors. Out of 6,959 eligible students, 1,847 students signed up.

The number of students participating is about the same this year, said Snapp, but Catapult's share is down sharply to 268 students for Education Station, the program scrutinized, and 131 more for its online high school program. Last year, Catapult was the district's preferred provider. This year, the district is serving its own programs to two-thirds of the students entitled to tutoring. Outside providers now typically offer their programs at non-school locations, giving district programs an advantage.

The district acted to downgrade Catapult's role even before Heistad's data, in part due to preliminary results. Heistad and Snapp said they'll evaluate the district programs for effectiveness as well.

The state decides which companies or agencies may offer their services in Minnesota, but the companies pick where they'll operate. Parents are free to pick any of the companies operating in their districts.

But unlike the information the Minnesota Department of Education offers in its school report cards, such as test scores and student body characteristics, the department has no results for tutoring companies.

That's one reason Heistad stepped in to evaluate those operating in Minneapolis. He found little evidence of strong reading or math growth for students getting tutored, regardless of the provider. Some tutors with a handful of students each did better than others.

Morgan Brown, the state's school choice director, said he's pleased to get Heistad's analysis. He said he's curious to see how much more shopping around parents do once state test changes allow comparisons among tutors next year.

— Steve Brandt
Minneapolis Star Tribune


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