In case you missed this story in Monday's Sun Sentinel, staff writer Marc Freeman reports on the usefulness of FCAT tutoring:
There are only four weeks left before the reading and math portions of the FCAT — the writing test begins Tuesday — and more than 9,500 struggling students in Palm Beach and Broward counties are each receiving up to $1,500 worth of free tutoring.
That adds up to more than $14 million in federal funds that the school districts pay local tutoring firms.
But South Florida educators say they aren't sure this tutoring produces smarter students and higher test scores. And the state hasn't had a method of grading tutors despite doling out $77 million yearly across Florida for the voluntary program, called Supplemental Educational Services.
"How do we know we're getting the bang for the buck?" asked Terry Pitchford, manager of state and federal programs for Palm Beach County schools.
The answers could come this year. Palm Beach County is one of nine districts around the country participating in a $1.4 million federal study on whether the tutoring leads to higher achievement. And the state Board of Education in March is expected to adopt a new scoring system that would rate firms excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, based on various factors including whether students showed improvement in mastering skills.
"We've wanted an evaluation of provider effectiveness for several years," Pitchford said, adding that the district joined the national study "to learn if the money being expended on this program is helping students improve academically."
The U.S. Department of Education intends to use the study results in shaping the future of the program, which cost $806 million nationwide in the 2007-08 school year, the most recent available data.
Locally, parent survey results show they are highly satisfied with the tutoring and want to keep using it.
"I'm very happy because my child is happy," said Maria Amez, of Lake Worth. "It's working."
She said her son Jeremy, 8, has received better grades in the three weeks since he began getting help in reading from a local Sylvan Learning branch.
"He's improving a lot," Amez said of her third-grader, who will take his first FCAT exam March 9.
The free tutoring is required by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. To be eligible, Florida students must attend schools that have failed to meet a federal standard called "adequate yearly progress" for two or more years, and enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.
The program now covers 78 schools in Broward and 84 in Palm Beach County. Educators sent letters home last fall inviting parents to apply for the service, which began in mid-October.
But the districts don't have enough federal funds to pay for all of the eligible students at those schools. So they select only the students struggling most — about 5,500 in Broward and 4,000 in Palm — while thousands are placed on waiting lists.
"Our parents need to know the limited capacity we can serve," said Luwando L. Wright-Hines, a Broward schools administrator who manages the program.
Students receive about 21 hours of tutoring, usually billed at $70 per hour, in the months leading up to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. There are 49 state-approved tutoring companies serving students in Broward and 42 in Palm Beach County.
Typically, the companies hire district teachers and retired educators to serve as tutors during after-school hours. The tutoring is provided in classrooms and at off-campus locations.
"For a lot of parents it's their one and only shot to get extra support for their children," said Jason Green, vice president of Rocket Learning, one of the larger providers in Broward and Palm Beach counties. "It's hugely important."
Larry Sugar, executive director of Sylvan Learning in Palm Beach County, said: "We definitely see positive results for the students."
A 2007 federally authorized study found that the tutoring leads to significant gains by students. The researchers cautioned, however, that the encouraging results from seven districts don't mean the tutoring is effective everywhere.
The new research is intended to be a more rigorous examination of the program, indicating whether student improvement is a result of tutoring or classroom instruction.
Results will be out later in the year, said Brian Gill, associate director of Cambridge, Mass.-based Mathematica Policy Research, which is leading the federal study.
Palm Beach County parents say the tutoring is the difference maker, according to survey responses from 586 families last year, Pitchford said. Eighty percent of those parents said their children improved. Results from a survey of Broward parents have not yet been published.
The Florida Department of Education plans to post its first tutoring firm ratings by July 1, so parents around the state can see how the providers measure up this year, said Lisa Bacen, chief of the Bureau of Federal Educational Programs.
These ratings will take into account student achievement data, attendance and evaluations by parents, principals and districts. Tutors scored at 80 percent or higher will be considered excellent, with the rest satisfactory or not.
"Florida has created a system that we believe reflects providers' abilities to deliver quality services," Bacen said.
Rocket Learning's Green welcomes the branding, which he said he believes will reflect that his clients' reading and math scores rise 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
"This is not a baby-sitting service," he said. "This is intensive state-standards-based instruction."
Marc Freeman can be reached at mjfreeman@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6642.
Copyright © 2010, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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