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ERO Enhanced Reading Opportunities:  Evaluating the Impact of Adolescent Literacy Programs in Freshman Academies

Identifying Strategies to Address Adolescent Literacy Needs is Crucial to Improving Students’ High School Outcomes
 In recent years, there has been a renewed national focus on the problems of high schools. Low performing high schools are characterized by high absentee and course failure rates, increasing dropout rates, and, even among graduates, inadequate preparation for post-secondary education and the labor market. Often entering ninth graders confront chaotic and often alienating school structures with fewer opportunities for individualized learning.  As many as half to three-quarters of these students may have significant reading difficulties that go inadequately addressed, leaving them without the skills needed to comprehend more demanding subject material.

In recognition of these demands, schools have increasingly adopted smaller learning communities (SLCs) or academies for their ninth grade students with the aim of creating more personalized and supportive instructional environments. Since FY 2000, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has provided grants to school districts for planning, implementing, and expanding SLCs in large high schools.  More recently, this federal assistance has emphasized the importance of focusing on instructional approaches that raise student achievement in these smaller learning communities.     

Fortunately, a growing number of curricular and instructional programs are being developed to address the literacy needs of striving ninth grade readers.   Several of these curricula are designed to supplement the regular language arts curriculum.

Despite the substantial interest in both freshman academies and intensive instructional supports for striving ninth grade students, there are few rigorous studies examining their effectiveness.  This study represents part of a larger effort by the U.S. Dept. of Education to improve our research base about how we can support students in our secondary schools. 


To Implement and Assess the Effectiveness of Supplemental Literacy Programs in High Schools with Small Learning Communities

To address this gap in knowledge and practice, ED’s National Center for Education Evaluation (NCEE) in the Institute for Education Sciences is collaborating with the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) to conduct a rigorous test of supplemental literacy interventions in freshman academies and other ninth grade SLCs. OVAE has run a special competition within the SLC grant program to provide funds to assist the schools in adding an intensive, supplemental reading curriculum for striving ninth grade readers. NCEE will direct a scientific evaluation of the initiative that will assess both the quality of program implementation and the impact of the interventions on student reading achievement, performance on high stakes tests, and progress toward graduation. NCEE has contracted with MDRC and American Institutes for Research (AIR) to conduct the evaluation.

Study Design

A Rigorous Assessment of Program Impacts and Implementation

The Evaluation of Adolescent Literacy Intervention Strategies will test the effectiveness of two promising supplemental literacy interventions targeted to striving ninth grade readers – those with reading comprehension skills that are two to four years below grade level. The interventions will include classroom instruction, high interest content and materials, ongoing student assessments, and professional development for teachers. The Strategic Instruction Model Adolescent Literacy program from the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas and the Reading Apprenticeship for Academic Literacy program from WestEd in California are the two programs that were selected for this study by a panel of reading experts through a competitive application process. In addition to monitoring program implementation, the evaluation team will assess the quality of both the content and delivery of the literacy curricula and instruction.

Each district selected through the special OVAE SLC grant competition has included two or four schools that are eligible and interested in the project. To be eligible, participating schools had to be using academies or small learning communities to organize their ninth grade and they had to document a need for supplemental literacy programs in their schools – i.e., demonstrate that a substantial proportion of entering ninth grade students were striving readers. Within each district, the participating schools have been assigned at random to implement one of the two supplemental literacy programs.

The literacy programs will be able to serve approximately 50 students in each of 34 high schools across 10 school districts. Each high school will be asked to identify approximately 100-125 students with reading comprehension skills that are two to four years below grade level. Approximately 50 of these students would be selected by a lottery-like process to participate in the extra period of literacy instruction and the remaining students would constitute the study’s comparison group and remain in a scheduled elective class or study hall.


Jan. 2005  Supplemental Literacy interventions selected

Jun. 2005  Districts selected through special OVAE SLC grant competition

Schools randomly assigned to literacy interventions

Jun. 2005 – Jul. 2005   MDRC visits participating school districts

Aug. 2005    Summer Teacher Training Institutes

Aug. 2005 – Jun. 2006    Year 1 of literacy program implementation and data collection

Aug. 2006    Summer Teacher Training Institutes

Aug. 2006 – Jun. 2007    Year 2 of literacy program implementation and data collection

Collect follow-up data on Year 1 cohort

Mar. 2007  Preliminary report on first year implementation and impacts

Aug. 2007 – Aug. 2008   Collect follow-up data on Year 1 and Year 2 cohorts

Mar. 2008  Interim report on implementation and impacts for the second year

May 2009   Final report

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For additional information about this study, please contact:

James J. Kemple                           Terry Salinger                                        Paul Strasberg

MDRC                                           American Institutes for Research (AIR)     U.S. Department of Ed
16 East 34th Street                         1000 Thomas Jefferson Street, NW          Institute of Education Sciences

New York, NY  10016                      Washington, DC 20007                           555 N.J. Ave, NW

Phone:    (212)340-8676                Phone:    (202)403-5387                       Washington, DC 20208

Fax:         (212)684-0832               Fax:         (202)403-5001                      Phone:    (202)219-3400

E-mail:   E-mail:                     Fax:     (202)219-1725