State officials said that because providers offer a variety of programs, tailored to students' specific needs, it's impossible to evaluate them.

Maria Lamb, who oversees SES services for the state, said it doesn't have a valid and reliable measure to determine how tutoring services affect academic progress on the Maryland School Assessment tests.

"We can't attribute progress on [those tests] solely to the fact that students receive the SES program, because it's just one variable," Lamb said. "And we just don't think that 20 to 30 hours of tutoring a week is going to show us that."

However, Jacobson, the Abell report's author and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, concluded that monitoring is more important. Her own complaint against a company that was supposed to provide special education tutoring services — a separate program — to her son resulted in the owner being convicted of fraud charges in April and facing jail time.

"It's naive to allow these private contractors to evaluate themselves," Jacobson said. "Monitoring puts a cumbersome burden on the city school system, and really, it's the state's responsibility and they've chosen not to do it."

But Maryland has been identified as a leader in the screening, monitoring and vetting of SES providers, said state officials, who added that it is one of few states that does routine, often unannounced, site visits.

The state's screening process is also considered among the most rigorous. Only seven out of 35 providers that applied were added to the state's list of approved vendors for this year, according to state officials. There are 44 vendors operating in the state.

"Maryland runs a pretty tight ship — if you're a provider and you're not offering services, the phone calls come very quickly, from multiple sources," Brown, the SES advocate, said of Maryland's monitoring. "Nobody wants to be that provider. They will shut you down."

Brown, who is national director of Healthy Families D.C., has been involved in guiding SES policy at the local and national level for eight years. He is also part of a group of providers who launched a campaign called Tutor Our Children to lobby for SES to be included in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

He said it is an "imperfect system" but that the program's flaws don't negate its mission. The SES program has been associated with higher school attendance and lower dropout rates, part of a student's educational experience that Brown said isn't measurable on tests.

State education officials say it's a "daily task" investigating complaints in addition to their routine monitoring — which includes visits to vendor programs and spot checks of invoices and academic claims — which the federal law doesn't provide funding for.

"We would love to say that for every provider, we have a staff member who could go out once or twice a week, but we don't have those kinds of resources," Lamb said.

Because SES is a parent-driven program, recruitment is fierce, with companies going to great lengths to get a high head count, according to the Abell report. Recruitment near low-performing schools got so aggressive, the report noted, that Baltimore now restricts recruitment to a specifically designated time, such as the vendor fair last week. Maryland is also one of few states that bans recruitment incentives.

City school officials confirmed the report's finding that they comb through the 7,000 to 8,000 applications they receive from parents to ensure their veracity — they have received batches of applications with the same handwriting, from the same address — even if the tedious task may delay tutoring services until January, which happened in 2010. This year, the school system is hopeful they will start by November.

Tasha Johnson-Franklin, who oversees SES for the city school system, said the Abell report was "an accurate profile of some of our successes and challenges, by design." Missing, she said, was the extensive guidance the school system provides to parents like Fischer in making informed decisions.

Johnson-Franklin called Baltimore an "SES-friendly district," but said that "we still are wondering, just like the rest of the country, whether this particular intervention is touching academic achievement in a dramatic way."

"The report highlights things we should be thinking about: how we can serve more kids and how we can do it better," she said.

erica.green@baltsun.com