HISD’s Apollo 20 program should expand tutoring, according to Rice review

The Houston Independent School District’s Apollo 20 program, aimed at improving the district’s 20 lowest-performing schools, should expand its intensive tutoring, according to an independent review from Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC). The review also found that the program’s reported effects on standardized test scores are mixed and that its claim to be able to close the math achievement gap in three years is unlikely.


HERC, which is part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, reviewed Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s report on the Apollo program, “Injecting Charter School Best Practices Into Traditional Public Schools: Evidence From Houston.” The report outlines five strategies that aim to improve the achievement of highly disadvantaged students attending the worst-performing schools in HISD in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 academic years.

The report said the strategies – increased instructional time, a more rigorous approach to building human capital of teachers and administrators, intensive tutoring, frequent use of data to inform instruction and a culture of high expectations – helped improve math standardized test scores over two years and had a smaller positive impact on reading scores; the report said these results are comparable to the reported impacts of attending high-performing charter schools.

Ruth López Turley, director of HERC and an associate professor of sociology at Rice, said that taken together, the strategies had positive effects on math standardized-test gains but negligible effects on reading standardized-test gains. She said the strongest evidence of the program’s positive effects is from the small-group, intensive tutoring, which was provided only for math, and resulted in average improvement over two years, compared with students who did not receive tutoring.


“Due to budget constraints, not all students involved in the Apollo program received small-group, intensive tutoring,” Turley said. “This allowed a comparison of Apollo students who received tutoring with Apollo students who did not, and there were significant differences in favor of those who received tutoring. Given its positive effects, our recommendation is to expand this tutoring to include reading as well as additional grade levels.”

Turley also said that the report’s conclusion that the Apollo program can close the math achievement gap between minority and white students in three years is problematic.

“The report assumes that the observed improvements on test scores will persist over time,” she said. “However, there is no evidence that the effects will persist; in fact, there is evidence to the contrary. Statistics calculated by HERC staff show that student gains were smaller in the program’s second year (5.8 point increase on Stanford Math tests and 13.1 point increase on Stanford Reading tests) than in the first year (31.1 point increase on Stanford Math tests and 15.6 point increase on Stanford Reading tests).”

Turley said that the other issue with these test-score improvements is that they do not show the effects of the Apollo program separately by race; therefore, it is impossible to say whether the program is actually closing the math achievement gap between minority and white students, she said.

“In order to close the gaps, the program must either target minorities or be shown to have a stronger impact on blacks and Hispanics than on whites,” she said.

Turley said she hopes the review will have a positive impact on HISD’s work aimed at closing the achievement gaps.

“I’m really impressed by HISD’s efforts to close the achievement gaps, and the Apollo program is a great example of their commitment,” she said. “However, the results are mixed, and we should take steps to focus on the components for which we have evidence of positive impact.”

A copy of the review is available online at http://kinder.rice.edu/herc.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.