A final evaluation of the federal Enhanced Reading Opportunities program suggests that extra, explicit reading classes can boost reading skills for struggling adolescents, but the short-lived improvements aren't enough catch up students years behind the curve.
Still, the last of three reports by the New York-based research firm MDRC Inc., released today, provides clear, positive results from a large-scale randomized, controlled trial on reading intervention &mdash a rarity in the increasingly urgent debate over adolescent literacy.
The study, conducted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, suggests an extra reading class instead of a regular elective can boost reading comprehension, GPA, course credits and even state reading and math scores for students who enter freshman year reading several grade levels behind.
MDRC researchers tracked 6,000 9th-grade students in 34 high schools who read at least two years below grade level. The students were randomly assigned to attend either one of the two supplemental reading programs &mdash Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy, developed by San Francisco-based WestEd researchers, and Xtreme Reading, a brainchild of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning in Lawrence &mdash or a scheduled elective course. At the end of a full year of classes that ran 225 minutes each week, all three groups of students took a standardized reading comprehension test. In addition, both during the treatment year and the following year, the researchers looked at students' end-of-year course credits, performance in state assessments of reading, math, science and social studies, as well as behaviors such as school attendance and reading both in school and on their own time.
Researchers found students in the demonstration programs moved from the 23rd to the 25th percentile in reading during the year, representing about two months of growth more than their peers in the control group. In addition, the demonstration-group students had a 13 percent higher average GPA, and performed better than the control group on state assessments of both reading and math during the program year. Demonstration participants also accumulated more credits toward graduation than their peers.
"It provides some glimmer of sense that there was some transferability of the literacy skills," said Marsha Silverberg, IES program officer on the study. She noted that both programs improved students' reading comprehension, but only the Reading Apprenticeship did so significantly.
So why am I not doing a happy-dance right now? Because the gains, interesting as they are, weren't nearly enough to make up the difference for kids who started out on average four or five years behind grade level in reading. At the end of the year of supplemental help, nearly four out of five students still read two or more years below grade level and neither they nor the control group were on track to graduate. By the next year, every one of those program-year gains had disappeared. Moreover, even during the program year, students didn't improve their reading behaviors along with their reading performance: they didn't report reading more often, attending school more often, or even using the strategies taught in either of the two programs.
"I think it's really important to think of how low-level a group these students were," Ms. Silverberg said. "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. Remember, literacy doesn't get taught in high school, it doesn't even get taught in middle school. Explicit literacy basically stops in 5th 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?"
Moreover, course material changes dramatically from class to class in complexity and content during the high school years, said Rich M. Long, government relations director for the International Reading Association. "We have evidence now that [students] do learn and they do generalize from the literacy class to the content class, but when the material gets harder, the improvement isn't sustained," Mr. Long said. "The effects of the environment &mdash poverty and the like &mdash don't dissipate with an infusion of specific skills. You still need gas to run the car."
Recent studies like the MDRC reports contribute to a solidifying research base on what works in adolescent literacy, Mr. Long said, but the rapid increase in rigor for "college and career readiness" standards makes the need for such evidence at the high school level more urgent.
Literacy in secondary schools, Mr. Long said, is "much harder than elementary schools [because] high schools tend to be a whole lot bigger, the issues and complexities of what is being taught tend to be a whole lot more daunting. Just having an emphasis in elementary schools doesn't mitigate against the effect of poverty, especially in a time when we're making things more rigorous across the board."
Fourteen out of the original 34 study schools have chosen to keep the supplemental reading programs this year, with some extending the time of the program to allow students to take the supplemental class for more than a single year. Though there are no plans to continue tracking the students' progress in those schools, Ms. Silverberg said IES does hope to use the lessons learned from this study to help theeight grantees in this round of President Obama's Striving Readers adolescent literacy program.