Federal

Reading, Math Software Found to Have Little Effect on Scores

By Debra Viadero — March 13, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

For the second year in a row, a controversial $14.4 million federal study testing the effectiveness of reading and math software programs has found few significant learning differences between students who used the technology and those taught using other methods.

Of the 10 commercial software programs tested at various grade levels, only one—LeapTrack, a supplemental-reading program for 4th graders that is published by LeapFrog Schoolhouse, of Emeryville, Calif.—produced significant improvements in students’ test scores across both years of the study.

Although not large, the test-score boost that the program provides is considered enough to move a typical student from the 50th percentile to the 54th percentile on a national standardized reading test, according to the report.

The two Algebra 1 products tested—Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor Algebra 1 and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Larson Learning Algebra 1—led to similar-size test-score gains, but only among students taught by a subset of teachers who had used the same products for two years in a row.

Publishers, researchers, and federal officials called the findings disappointing, but also raised cautions about relying too heavily on the results to compare effectiveness among products and choose which ones to buy.

“If you already have the hardware in the classroom and you want one of these products, this would not dissuade you,” said Mark Dynarski, the lead researcher on the project for Mathematica Policy Research Inc., the Princeton, N.J.-based company that conducted the study.

“If you’re quite skeptical of the software and very budget-pinched, I think you would feel this is evidence in favor of your position,” he added. “And if you’re really right in the middle, I think it comes down to how much you want to move test scores, because you’re really not going to see that happen with these products.”

Study Draws Criticism

Despite a quiet release in January, the study met with criticism from independent researchers and software publishers.

“There’s nothing really here that superintendents or state policymakers or corporations could use that would be a strong basis for decisionmaking,” said Christopher J. Dede, a professor of learning technologies, innovation, and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a critic of the study. “I feel the methods used were more flawed in the second year than the first.”

Product Testing

Ten computer-based reading and math products were evaluated in the 2005-06 school year as part of a major federal research project.

Grade 1 Early Reading
• Destination Reading, Riverdeep Inc.
• Headsprout, Headsprout Inc.
• The Waterford Early Reading Program, Waterford Institute Inc.
• Plato Focus, Plato Learning

Grade 4 Reading Comprehension
• Academy of Reading, AutoSkill International Inc.
• Leaptrack, LeapFrog Schoolhouse

Grade 6 Prealgebra
• Plato Achieve Now, Plato Learning Inc.
• Larson Prealgebra, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Grade 9 Algebra
• Cognitive Tutor, Carnegie Learning Inc.
• Larson Algebra, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Source: Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

Note: Some of the developers and companies have since sold their product lines or been involved in corporate acquisitions.

The findings don’t mean that products that seem to be ineffective in one school or district won’t work better in another, the report concludes, nor should educators and policymakers use the results to make head-to-head comparisons between products. In some cases, Mr. Dynarski said, too few schools were using the individual products studied to make those kinds of comparisons.

Involving roughly 13,000 students, the study was ordered by Congress in the No Child Left Behind Act. The report on the first round of findings, which looked at 16 products, came out in 2007. (“Major Study on Software Stirs Debate,” April 11, 2007.)

The new report, the last one for the project, evaluates 10 commercial software programs that are widely used in the 1st, 4th, and 6th grades, as well as in Algebra 1 classes, which can be taught at several grade levels.

Unlike its predecessor, the final report gives product-by-product results for all 10 programs studied. Over the 2005-06 school year, researchers tested the programs in 23 districts around the country, most of which served high numbers of low-income students, and 77 schools. In each school, and for each product used in those schools, researchers included at least one control classroom and one experimental classroom.

“The control classrooms are generally using only products for Internet browsing or practicing on state assessments,” Mr. Dynarski said. “They weren’t using the other software products.”

A subset of teachers—115—stuck with the same products for a second year, allowing researchers to see whether the programs became more effective as teachers grew more familiar with them. The additional experience only seemed to matter for the Algebra 1 software, though; for the other programs, students fared about the same in both study years.

The study also found that the average amount of time that students spent using the programs fluctuated from year to year. Yet the researchers could find no correlations between programs’ effectiveness and the amount of time that students spent using them.

Questions on Method

Some experts said the study may raise more questions about the usefulness of experimental research designs in education than about the findings themselves. The software study was among the first to reflect the then newly formed Institute of Education Sciences’ early emphasis on large-scale randomized studies.

“These studies are intended to wash out all the variation in school environments, teacher quality, resources—all the things that we, in fact, know make a difference when it comes to student learning,” said Margaret A. Honey, a technology expert who is the president of the New York Hall of Science.

Mr. Dynarski said such concerns stem from the belief that the study had failed to pick up actual learning gains. “I’m not sure that the right answer isn’t zero,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Reading, Math Software Found to Have Little Effect on Scores

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal K-12 Leaders Denounce Antisemitism But Reject That It's Rampant in Schools
Three school district leaders said they're committed to rooting out antisemitism during a hearing in Congress.
6 min read
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York Public schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, President of the Montgomery Count (Md.) Board of Education, Emerson Sykes, Staff Attorney with the ACLU, and Enikia Ford Morthel, Superintendent of the Berkeley United School District, during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York City schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County, Md., school board; Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU; and Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified school district in Berkeley, Calif., during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal Miguel Cardona in the Hot Seat: 4 Takeaways From a Contentious House Hearing
FAFSA, rising antisemitism, and Title IX dominated questioning at a U.S. House hearing with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill on May 7 in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Federal Arming Teachers Could Cause 'Accidents and More Tragedy,' Miguel Cardona Says
"This is not in my opinion a smart option,” the education secretary said at an EdWeek event.
4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Federal Opinion Should Migrant Families Pay Tuition for Public School?
The answer must reflect an outlook that is pro-immigration, pro-compassion, and pro-law and order, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Image of a pencil holder filled with a variety of colored pencils that match the background with international flags.
Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva