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New Research Report Evaluates Effectiveness of Reading Programs for Adolescent Readers

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“Remember, literacy doesn’t get taught in high school, it doesn’t even get taught in middle school. Explicit literacy basically stops in fifth grade. Is one year of a program enough to get these students on track to be adept readers when all their lives they weren’t adept readers?”

In an effort to provide more research on the needs of adolescent readers and the effective interventions that can address these needs, the U.S. Department of Education began the Enhanced Reading Opportunities (ERO) study. ERO is a demonstration and rigorous evaluation of supplemental literacy programs targeted to ninth-grade students whose reading skills are at least two years below grade level.

As part of the demonstration, six thousand ninth graders from thirty-four high schools in ten school districts were given one of two reading interventions: Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy, designed by WestEd and Xtreme Reading, designed by the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. These programs were implemented in the study schools for two school years. MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization, conducted the evaluation in partnership with the American Institutes for Research and Survey Research Management.

The first two reports for the study evaluate the programs’ impact on students’ reading skills and their reading behaviors at the end of ninth grade. The most recent and final report in the study, The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study Final Report: The Impact of Supplemental Literacy Courses for Struggling Ninth-Grade Readers, finds that ERO programs improved students’ reading comprehension skills over the course of ninth grade and helped them perform better in their high school course work. However, these benefits did not persist in the following school year, when students were no longer receiving the supports provided by the ERO programs.

Specifically, students in the reading programs moved from the 23rd percentile to the 25th percentile nationally. At the same time, however, 77 percent of students assigned to an ERO class were still reading at two or more years below grade level at the end of ninth grade. Students’ grade point average (GPA) in core subject areas (English language arts, social studies, science, and mathematics) was 0.06 points higher, or 13 percent, as a result of being assigned to an ERO program. The programs also helped students earn 0.6 percentage points more of the core credits that they need to graduate.

On the downside, the estimated impact on students’ GPA in core subject areas, credit accumulation, and standardized state test scores were not statistically significant in the school year following program participation (tenth grade for most students). Additionally, the ERO programs did not increase students’ vocabulary scores, reading behaviors, student attendance rates, or reduce suspensions in either the program year or the following year.

In discussing the study, Marsha Silverberg, program officer at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which was responsible for oversight of the evaluation, said it was important to remember the very low reading skills of the students in the study. “When we put out the call, we said [participants should read] at least two years behind, but I would think the students we ended up with had even lower reading skills than they expected,” she told Education Week. “Remember, literacy doesn’t get taught in high school, it doesn’t even get taught in middle school. Explicit literacy basically stops in fifth grade. Is one year of a program enough to get these students on track to be adept readers when all their lives they weren’t adept readers?”

The complete report is available at http://www.mdrc.org/publications/565/full.pdf.

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