The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study


Low-performing high schools, particularly those serving low-income communities and students of color, are often characterized by high absentee and course failure rates, substantial dropout rates, and — even for graduates — inadequate preparation for postsecondary education and the labor market. While the stage is often set for these problems in elementary and middle schools, the devastating effects become more visible in ninth grade. As many as one-half to three-quarters of ninth-graders in low-performing high schools embark on their freshmen year with significant reading difficulties, lacking the skills needed to comprehend complex texts assigned in their content courses. Students who face marked literacy deficits are unlikely to do well in high school, and poor reading ability is a key predictor of academic disengagement and, ultimately, dropping out.

While much has been learned about literacy in the elementary grades, less is known about programmatic approaches that help struggling adolescent readers acquire the skills they need to succeed in high school. To help fill in this gap in knowledge, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences awarded MDRC and its partner, American Institutes for Research (AIR), a contract to establish and evaluate the effects of two supplemental literacy programs for students who enter ninth grade with reading skills well below grade level. One aspect of this research and demonstration project is that the schools mounting the literacy programs are ones that already operate “small learning communities,” which are characterized by interdisciplinary teams of teachers who share the same small group of students and have common planning time.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study tests the effectiveness of two supplemental literacy interventions targeted to striving ninth-grade readers — those with reading comprehension skills that are two to five years below grade level. The interventions that were selected prior to the start of the 2005 school year are (1) Reading Apprenticeship for Academic Literacy from WestEd and (2) Xtreme Reading from the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. This national study has unfolded over a five-year period and addresses the following questions:

  • What challenges and successes did the high schools experience in implementing the reading interventions?
  • What are the effects of these interventions on students’ reading skills and on other academic outcomes?
  • For which subgroups of students are the programs most effective?
  • What are the costs of these programs?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The sites — 34 high schools across 10 districts — were selected by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education within the U.S. Department of Education, which provides grants to fund the establishment and operation of small learning communities. The schools were randomly assigned to the two interventions, with half the schools in each district implementing Reading Apprenticeship and half implementing Xtreme Reading. Baseline surveys and reading achievement data were collected from students, and students in each school were assigned to the ERO group or the comparison group. Students assigned to the ERO group took the full-year reading course instead of one of their elective classes. Schools implemented the two ERO interventions to two cohorts of ninth graders, the first in 2005-2006 and the second in 2006-2007. Teachers completed a summer training session prior to each implementation year, and they also received coaching and additional training during the school year.