No Testing Company Left Behind

Posted September 14, 2007 at 6:08pm

Experts can argue endlessly about whether the No Child Left Behind Act has made U.S. school children any smarter. One thing is clear, though: The legislation has nurtured a now-booming industry of tutoring and testing enterprises that have blossomed on the government’s dime.

But now that the law is up for reauthorization, the industry — whose potential revenues are some $2 billion a year — is on the defensive: A recently released discussion draft of the bill sets out policies that could slice the industry in half.

Under the current NCLB, if a school district and its schools fail to show “adequate yearly progress” for three years in a row, then the school must offer poor children the option of transferring to another school or provide after-school tutoring. The current law sets aside

20 percent of a school’s Title I money to get the supplemental educational services, as the businesses are known.

“A couple of very important and somewhat subtle changes would have the effect of substantially reducing the amount of dollars that are allowed to kids, or cut in half the numbers of kids that will be eligible,” said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association. “There are two forces at work that would reduce dollars and reduce the number of kids that are eligible.”

One of those forces would change the way government funding is calculated, and another would make government funding available for students in only the worst performing schools.

“We do not support the proposal that would result in fewer resources being set aside for tutoring services,” said Pines, whose members include such tutoring, testing and other companies as Princeton Review, Knowledge Learning Corp., Pearson, Riverdeep and Sylvan. “I think our members are very concerned about all these changes,” Pines said. “All these would add up to a recipe for having substantial dampening effects on the industry, to say the least.”

NCLB has sparked more than controversy; it has created vast business opportunities as well.

“Not only has it sparked a [tutoring] industry, but also a testing industry,” said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democratic lobbyist who has worked with the National Education Association as a client.

Vilsack also said teachers must meet strict requirements in order to be in the classroom, whereas contractors with supplemental education services outfits don’t. He also was skeptical of diverting resources away from classrooms and to SES companies. “There ought to be standards for these programs,” he said. “We shouldn’t be directing resources away from the schools.”

When it comes to the tutoring and other private companies, Business Roundtable favors keeping schools in charge of which types of contractors to use. “We don’t think they should be cut back, but we think all providers, whether public or private, should be evaluated and should be able to demonstrate their effectiveness,” said Susan Traiman, director of education and workforce policy at BRT.

Pines’ private-sector members also are upset because the discussion draft could deny for-profit companies the opportunity to even compete for some contracts with school districts.

“Because these sections were written by many different staff, there seems to be a lack of consistency in the eligibility of organizations to work with school districts,” Pines said. “In some sections, it only calls for a nonprofit.”

The current law, he said, gives districts full flexibility to contract with a variety of organizations.

“It’s just many hands writing the bill, and in the rush, perhaps it was an oversight,” Pines said. “I’m willing to give them that benefit of the doubt and come up with a consistent definition.”

Pines said the demand for his clients’ work hasn’t reached the full $2 billion annually, but he said the industry is growing every year.

“I think first of all, No Child Left Behind has created new opportunities for struggling kids to get tutoring from commercial organizations who have for decades provided tutoring to the wealthy,” Pines said. “What it has done is created access to high-quality after-school providers that only the middle class had been able to enjoy. As a result, it has allowed some [companies] to grow.”

Pines added that he is continuing to work with Members and staff to tweak the reauthorization’s language before the bill is formally introduced. “The committee is getting lots of feedback from unions, civil rights groups, for-profit companies. They’re hearing it in stereo. It’s a very difficult process to try to find the middle ground that retains the core tenets of NCLB,” he said.

Tor Cowan, legislative director for the American Federation of Teachers, said his union is still poring over the 1,000-page legislative document. He said the AFT wants to make sure that a revamped NCLB law will track achievement and progress in individual students.

“Because the law sets these arbitrary benchmarks, we believe that’s unfair to kids who are making real progress but started far behind,” Cowan said. At the same time, he added, his teachers also are weary of more tests taking up more hours in the classroom. “One of the concerns we hear from our teachers is that more and more time is spent on testing and test preparation,” he said. “And it has led to a narrowing of the curriculum.”

Meanwhile, companies that make tests also include McGraw-Hill Cos., whose lobbying lineup includes Quinn Gillespie & Associates. Not only does a company like McGraw-Hill advocate for NCLB because it wants an educated workforce, but it also benefits from the testing and other educational resources.

McGraw-Hill’s chief executive Terry McGraw also is the chairman of Business Roundtable, which has made the NCLB reauthorization a top legislative priority this year, said the group’s president John Castellani at a recent briefing on BRT’s agenda.