PACQUITA AND SHANE FLING
Private Tutors: $4,900

When she was a little girl, Vivian Fling loved school so much she'd even go when she was sick. So when she had twin daughters of her own, she hoped they would feel the same way. And she got her wish, at least through most of first grade. Then the twins, Pacquita and Shane, 9, "both just sort of fell apart after Christmas break," says Fling. At first, recalls the single Florida mother, "I was concerned. But by second grade, I started to panic. I knew the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) was coming up in third grade, and they just had to be ready for that."

Like millions of public grade-school-age kids across the country, the Flings are feeling the kind of white-knuckle academic stress that used to be the province of prep school students scrambling to get into the Ivy League. The reason? A wave of federally mandated tests that require states to measure reading and math progress in grades three through eight by the year 2006. Facing the fear her daughters might not be promoted, Fling decided to do something she had never before contemplated: She sent her kids to a tutoring center for $380 a month to help them through public school. "I decided to try to swing it," says Fling, 42, who makes $24,000 as a manager assistant for the Orlando Housing Authority. "I had to dip into the girls' college savings fund, but it had to be done."

In the past 14 months, to pay their tutoring bill, the Fling family have traded the mall for trips to upscale thrift shops and now wait for new movies to reach the dollar theater. "We used to go out for dinner every week at a steakhouse for the $6 buffet, but we had to stop going there," says Fling. "And when I got my IRS refund, I put it aside to pay for tutoring."

The Flings are far from the only family making sacrifices to make public education work for them. Since 2001, when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act with bipartisan support, high-stakes tests that determine whether elementary school students make it to the next grade—and in turn give administrators a report card on how schools are serving their students—have become the norm.

But with the tests has come increasing reliance on tutors and test-prep services, from $160-an-hour private instructors in Manhattan to strip-mall operations like Kaplan SCORE! centers and the New Jersey-based giant Kumon Math and Reading Centers, now ranked as the nation's fourth-fastest-growing franchise, right behind Subway, Curves and 7-Eleven. Thanks to testing, the tutoring business has grown 13 percent a year since 2000, with revenues of $3.5 billion. Education experts warn parents to consider carefully what they are getting for their money, since the quality of tutoring varies widely. "We do know that tutoring, done well, can be effective," says Prof. Henry Levin of Teachers College at Columbia University. "The problem is it's not always done well. Right now it's like the Wild West out there."

Given the worry high-stakes mandatory testing generates, it's little wonder experts are divided on whether ifs a good idea. Some, like critic James Popham, a UCLA professor emeritus and former designer of standardized tests, say the tests stifle creativity and problem-solving skills in kids, force rote memorization and encourage teachers to "teach to the test." The country is indeed seeing "a testing craze," says Popham, "but ifs the wrong kind. It's hurting kids, not helping them." Proponents like author and NYU professor Diane Ravitch, however, argue that kids can and should be able to handle the anxiety generated by requisite pass-fail testing. "Before you get a driver's license, you pass a test, but driving's worth it," she says. "We have to teach our children that education's worth it too."

Desperate for help, Vivian Fling first looked into two private tutoring companies, Sylvan and Huntington, which charged $90 an hour, before finding a lower rate at her local Kumon. After six months, Fling switched her twins to a one-on-one tutor and their grades improved. Even so, she says, when FCAT week arrived in March, Pacquita and Shane "had stomachaches every day on the way to school." Fling herself suffered chest pains from the stress. "I felt so helpless," she says. "Kids are too young for Valium. What do you do to help a stressed-out 8-year-old?"

The Fling twins' doctor recommended bike rides and shooting hoops before school (and has diagnosed them with ADD), and their private tutor, middle school teacher Renee Champion, encouraged them to sing to themselves to relax. By this past summer, all of the financial sacrifice and personal effort somehow came together. Pacquita and Shane Fling not only passed their FCATs, says their mother proudly, "they also made the honor roll."

JOEY NORIEGA
Private Tutors: $2,688

When the youngest of Karleen Noriega's four kids, 13-year-old Joey, began to fall behind in sixth grade, "I thought, This poor child of mine is going down.' It broke my heart," recalls the part-time home-health-care worker. Joey just managed to scrape by New Mexico's Terra Nova test before advancing to seventh grade.

But as soon as school let out for the summer, his mother took him to a Santa Fe Sylvan Learning Center and signed him up for two two-hour sessions of language-arts instruction per week. Cost: $720 a month—a struggle for Karleen, 48, and her husband, Gilbert, 49, a handyman, whose combined annual income is $20,000. "Sometimes we make $400 in a week," says Karleen, "sometimes nothing."

To pay for the tutoring, Gilbert got busy, taking on extra jobs laying tile at night. And Karleen, who worked alongside him, got mad. "They stress the tests too much," she says. "They scare the kids." Today, Joey's Sylvan vocabulary scores have risen from 1.3 to 6.4, while his grades are heading from D's to C's and some B's. At one recent test, "I sat down and was kind of happy because I felt I had learned a lot," says Joey. But his mom still faults his public school for letting him down in the first place. "I'm very mad. I'm very angry," she says. "If I could, I'd go over to his school and squeeze $10,000 out to pay for my child's tutoring."

KELLY TIERNEY
Private Tutors: $5,100

Lisa Tierney's 9-year-old daughter Kelly had always been a conscientious, hardworking student, even if she was a little behind her classmates in reading skills. But last year, standing outside Kelly's bedroom on the eve of a mandatory third-grade test Tierney realized just how stressed-out her daughter was. Inside, she could hear the sound of weeping. "She was saying, 'I know I'm going to fail,'" recalls Tierney, an accountant and single mom. "She was crying, 'I'm so dumb.'"

Last fall, Kelly began falling behind at Port Charlotte, Fla.'s Meadow Park Elementary School. Lisa enrolled her in a local Sylvan Learning Center, where she was tutored for a fee of $1,000 a month. Kelly's grades improved, but today Tierney, 40—who supports three daughters, ages 16, 13 and 9, on her $35,000 salary and child support from her ex, Paul Tierney, a police officer—is still struggling to pay off the five-year $10,000 loan she took out for the tutoring. Then in August came Hurricane Charley, which caused an estimated $10,000 in damage to the family's three-bedroom house; the storm also leveled the offices of the accounting firm where Lisa works, and now she faces the possibility of losing her job. Still, she insists the sacrifice was worth it. In March, Kelly—despite her pretest tears—passed her FCAT with flying colors. "I told her she could pick out a special toy," says Lisa. "So she got a swing for her baby doll." An even bigger prize is her daughter's growing confidence. As for school, "I like it now. I'm not so worried anymore," says Kelly softly. "It feels good to get better grades."

Susan Schindehette. Lori Rozsa and Kristin Harmel in Florida, Jennifer Frey in New York City, Inez Russell in Santa Fe and Angela Bresnahan in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Lori Rozsa,
  • Kristin Harmel,
  • Jennifer Frey,
  • Inez Russell,
  • Angela Bresnahan.