Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Real-World Responses in Real Time : COVID-19 Information Needs to Consider Literacy Gaps

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have a heightened need for information, literacy barriers can be life threatening. In the United States, roughly 20 percent of adults read at the lowest level, with another 33 percent still below proficiency1. Thus, many may be struggling to understand written guidance on COVID-19.

IES researchers at the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (R305C120001 and R305H180061) and their associated Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University are working to address the needs of adults with literacy skill gaps. Dr. Meredith Larson spoke to Dr. Daphne Greenberg and Dr. Iris Feinberg about their work in this area.

What are your concerns for adults with low literacy during the pandemic?

Daphne GreenbergIris FeinbergWe have known for a long time that the high prevalence of adults with low basic skills has consequences for both the individual and society. These consequences are heightened during this pandemic. Many adults with low literacy have “essential” jobs and must continue to work. They often interact with many different people daily. So it is crucial that they understand COVID-19 precautions for their own health and because their ability to know and practice safe behaviors has a direct impact on disease transmission to others. To be quite frank, we are concerned about the health and safety of our learners and the health and safety of others.

In the United States, we receive an overwhelming amount information about COVID-19 daily. To make matters worse, there’s no uniform national guidance, some of the information is incorrect, and other information is conflicting. It is challenging for highly literate individuals to make sense of it all. For example: When can a COVID-positive person step out of quarantine? Can someone be re-infected? How many feet constitute safe distance? The list of questions goes on and on.

For someone with low literacy, it’s even more difficult to make sense of all the COVID-19 information. For example, people with low reading skills may not be able to read or understand all of the written information. Additionally, because much of the information is on the internet, adults with low digital skills and/or poor access to the internet have the added problem of not being able to find information that could possibly be helpful to them.

How are you trying to address their needs?

We’ve created a library with a large sample of materials written for 9th grade reading levels and below available on the ALRC website. These documents provide specific information on topics like how to stop the spread or what to do if someone in your home has COVID-19. We hope that providers who work with adults with low literacy skills—like adult educators, community organizers and healthcare providers—will use our library and find the high-interest/low-literacy materials. The library is also divided into “easier” and “harder” resources, so people can quickly find material at appropriate reading levels.

What could healthcare providers, the media, or others do to help?

We all must help those who may not know where to find information. Not everyone knows how or where to look for health information or whether the information they find is valid. Our analysis of PIAAC data found that people with low literacy rely more on TV and radio for information. Simple, short public service announcements that are action oriented would be great for anyone who relies on TV or radio but particularly for those who have low reading skills.

Also, we need to be better prepared for all kinds of emergencies by creating community-wide partnership plans among trusted sources for adults with low literacy like community organizations, healthcare providers, and adult education providers. In addition, we should be following plain language guidelines in all of our written and oral communications. Writing health information in plain language helps everyone and should not be an afterthought.

 


Written by Meredith Larson. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges.


About the PIAAC

The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1 and below proficiency is Level 2. For more information about estimates of U.S. adult skills as measured by the PIAAC: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp

 

Meeting the Literacy Needs of Students with Autism: What Do We Know and Where Do We Need to Go?

April is Autism Awareness Month, which celebrates the importance of people with autism, the contributions they make every day to our world, and what we are learning about improving outcomes for the growing number of people with autism. IES supports research in this area, primarily through grants funded by the National Center for Special Education Research. Dr. Emily Solari at the University of Virginia (UVA) was awarded an IES grant in 2018 to lead an autism-focused postdoctoral training program. This program provides postdoctoral fellows with extensive research training in the academic, behavioral, and social development of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) from pre-K through their transition out of secondary school. Currently, their research focuses on literacy development, including reading comprehension and writing, in children with ASD.

Below we share a recent conversation with Dr. Solari about the importance of this work and what she and researchers at UVA are learning about literacy development.

What do we know about the needs of students with ASD in the area of literacy?

Children with ASD have a unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses that impacts their academic development. Several studies by our research group and others have shown that children and adolescents with ASD are at risk for difficulties in the area of literacy. Some individuals with ASD show a particular strength in alphabet knowledge, including letter names and sounds, as well as reading words. A strength in word reading ability does not always translate into adequate reading comprehension. Many adolescents with ASD who can successfully read words still demonstrate difficulties with reading comprehension, especially comprehension that requires inferencing. Difficulties may be due, in part, to the highly social content that is embedded in stories. Children with ASD often struggle in the area of social communication and theory of mind (understanding others’ mental states), which may inhibit their ability to comprehend narrative texts. Additionally, we know that vocabulary and oral language are both important for reading comprehension; therefore, difficulties in these areas – often seen in individuals with ASD – may impact reading comprehension as well.

Similarly, the existing data show that children with ASD have a more difficult time with writing-related tasks, such as composition. Our work in this area suggests that these writing difficulties may be due to broader difficulties related to language development and social communication skills. 

What research is being done to address the needs of students at different ages?

While we are beginning to understand developmental trajectories of reading for this population, very little research has been conducted on specific interventions for reading and writing. Our research group has begun to look at early elementary (K-3rd grade) language and reading comprehension interventions for students with ASD. Our initial studies have shown that when we implement highly interactive language and listening comprehension instruction, these students show gains in oral language and listening comprehension. We have found that instructional strategies that use shared book reading, where the teacher reads aloud from a book and asks children targeted questions about the characters in the story, are effective. Our instruction also provides students practice with vocabulary words and opportunities to respond to texts both orally and through writing.

There are also other research groups investigating emergent literacy (prekindergarten years) with this population of students. For example, Jaclyn Dynia at The Ohio State University has engaged in work investigating strengths and weaknesses in emergent literacy skills such as phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print awareness.  Also, in the early childhood years, Dr. Veronica Fleury at Florida State University is engaged in some work in this area, including an IES-funded study aimed at developing and testing the feasibility of an adaptive shared book reading intervention for preschoolers with ASD. 

To address difficulties in reading comprehension with older students, Michael Solis and his team at the University of California, Riverside are using IES funding to develop and test explicit instructional routines and curricular materials for a reading comprehension and behavior intervention for students with ASD in upper elementary and middle school.

In collaboration with our colleagues at the University of California, Davis, we continue to analyze and publish developmental studies examining literacy skills. Additionally, we have become increasingly interested in understanding the transition from prekindergarten to kindergarten and early elementary school and how literacy is developing during this time. At UVA, we have started a longitudinal data collection project to investigate the relations among early reading, oral language, social attention, and cognition variables in young children with higher functioning ASD.

Our group is also starting to think about how we can design interventions that specifically target early reading skills and language development as well as social communication skills. Children’s books often provide very rich opportunities to engage around events and feelings that could be used to teach children with ASD social communication skills. Our next school-based intervention study will combine our previously successful language and listening instruction with targeted social communication instruction.

What recommendations or resources do you have for parents who are supporting children with ASD as they learn from home during the pandemic?

Here are some tips for reading at home with children. Additional resources are below.

  • Friends on the Block was developed through an IES grant as an early literacy curriculum for children with disabilities.  They have provided some free content online for use at home by caregivers.
  • Self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) is an approach that emphasizes direct instruction of writing strategies, knowledge, and self-regulation skills via flexible, recursive instructional stages. SRSD approaches have been shown to be effective for some elementary and middle school children with autism.
  • Book Share Time provides read aloud texts and allows caregivers to filter the books based on specific speech or language goals.

This blog was co-authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov) at IES and Emily Solari (ejs9ea@virginia.edu), and her IES funded postdoctoral fellows (Alyssa Henry & Matthew Zajic) at UVA.  IES hopes to encourage more research on students with ASD in the coming years in order to increase the evidence base and guide program and policy decisions.

Closing the Opportunity Gap Through Instructional Alternatives to Exclusionary Discipline

According to the most recent GAO analysis of the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended or expelled in K-12 public schools. The reasons for these disparities may not always be clear, but the consequences are stark—suspended or expelled students miss out on opportunities to learn. What can be done to minimize this opportunity gap?

In 2018, researchers at the University of Oregon received a grant to develop an alternative to exclusionary discipline for middle schools. The Inclusive Skill Building Learning Approach (ISLA) will function as a Tier I universal intervention in middle schools that use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). ISLA systems and practices will give teachers other options for dealing with misbehaving students along with strategies to support students when they return to the classroom following a trip to the principal’s office. I recently spoke with Dr. Rhonda Nese, the principal investigator for Project ISLA, about how she became interested in this work and how she and her colleagues are tackling this challenge of narrowing the opportunity gap in middle school classrooms.

How did you become interested in the issue of disproportionate discipline?

I had been deeply interested in the school-to-prison pipeline research for many years, but the light switch went on for me when I was spending time in a middle school through my work on another project. I started noticing a pattern of students, mostly boys and students of color, sitting in the office every time I walked into this school. And I’m talking about lots of students! This office would be flooded with kids; not learning, not speaking with anyone, just sitting and looking downcast. And it was disturbing.

When I asked the assistant principal what the students were doing in the office, she shared that, for whatever reason, the students were sent out of class and needed to meet with an administrator. So, I became curious. On average how much class time were they missing? I was floored to learn that the average was three days of missed instruction, which is the equivalent of over 1200 minutes of learning. And the deeper I dug the more I realized how pervasive the problem was. In addition to the racial disparities I saw in the kids being excluded, it was also clear that the students who were missing instruction were those who needed to be in class the most: students living in poverty, students struggling academically, and students receiving special education services. And the process of sitting and waiting was doing the students a tremendous disservice academically, behaviorally, and emotionally. I saw firsthand the issues I needed to begin addressing immediately, and I knew I found my passion.

How does Project ISLA extend or build on your earlier research?

I started developing ISLA during my postdoc years when I was deep in the PBIS literature, examining predictors of sustained implementation of evidence-based practices, and beginning to explore interventions to address implicit biases in discipline disproportionality. So, I was able to combine what I was learning from practitioners and from scientific findings to craft an intervention that was rooted in behavioral theory, embedded in preventative practices, and incorporated teacher and student voice.

I also became clearer with myself and others that ISLA is not about “fixing” kids: it is about changing adult behavior to improve student outcomes and relationships. Now through our iterative development process, our team is learning so much about what it takes to support school staff with making this work their own, how we get buy-in from the school community, and how we braid the ISLA work with other preventative practices they already have in place.

What are the core components of the ISLA intervention? What are its essential practices? What have you learned so far about what it takes to implement ISLA in middle schools?

One of our greatest goals is to help educators make this philosophical shift where they view sending a student out of class as a really big deal, and thus, should be reserved for situations in which the teachers and students need support with problem solving, skill building, and making amends. In order to accomplish this, we begin with spending a lot of time with our educators developing and revisiting preventative practices to improve the classroom environment, and in turn, reduce the need for exclusion. This includes working with educators to develop and implement universal relationship-building strategies, graduated discipline practices within the classroom, neutralizing routines to reduce the impact of implicit biases on their decision making, and mechanisms for supporting students in effective and respectful ways. We then layer on a systematized process for students and teachers to request breaks, and then on top of this we have our processes that are provided to students in the event that they are sent out to help them get back to class faster and with the skills to make amends with their teacher. This includes a debrief, skills coaching, and reconnection supports with a front office staff member and a process for their teacher to listen reflectively and agree on how they will problem solve with the student if there’s an issue in the future.  

Getting folks to move away from exclusionary discipline practices takes a lot of time and a lot of patience, because suspensions and other forms of exclusion are deeply tied to systems of oppression that have been prevalent in the United States. And especially in middle school, there’s this pervasive myth that students should know how to behave by this point, and so anything to the contrary is seen as willful defiance as opposed to a skill gap. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, and ISLA is certainly not a silver bullet. In fact, we call ISLA Tier I+ because it starts with universal preventative practices and then adds supports for students and teachers who need more. Because of all the myth busting and support layering we’re doing, working with a team of educators in each school has been critical for buy-in and implementation. They help guide our iterative changes, give us strategies to consider, and are the voice to their colleagues. They are invested in the work because they are helping to develop it for their schools. And our work is so much more meaningful because of them.

 

Dr. Nese and her team are mid-way through their project. Now that they have completed the iterative development process they are testing the usability and feasibility of ISLA in new middle schools this year. In their pilot study of promise next year, they will see if ISLA increases instructional time for students and improves student-teacher relationships and school climate. In addition to creating ISLA user guides and materials, the team plans to develop technical reports, video tutorials, trainings, and webinars that will be available through the Office for Special Education Programs (OSEP) Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports website.


Written by Emily Doolittle, National Center for Education Research Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research. This is the third in a series of blog posts that stems from the 2020 Annual Principal Investigators Meeting. The theme of the meeting was Closing the Gaps for All Learners and focused on IES’s objective to support research that improves equity in access to education and education outcomes. Other posts in this series include Why I Want to Become an Education Researcher and Diversify Education Sciences? Yes, We Can!

 

Responding to COVID19 in Education: ED/IES and Government Supported Developers Offer Virtual Resources and Activities for Distance Learning

We recently posted this blog listing more than 80 learning games and technologies that are available at no cost until the end of the school year in response to the closure of schools due to the COVID crisis. The resources were created by education technology developers with support from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Programs at ED/IES and other agencies, as well as through programs at IES and across government. In recent weeks, more than 100,000 teachers and students around the country have accessed these learning technologies at a distance.

Today, we are sharing more resources and activities that this group of developers is making available to the education community in response to COVID19.

A Series of Day-Long Virtual Unconferences

Over the coming weeks, developers are hosting a series of free virtual “Unconferences” on different topics for educators, parents, and students. The events will feature innovative models and approaches to teaching and learning during this time of distance learning and in-depth looks at the learning games and technologies created by the presenters, available at no cost until the end of the school year. While presenters will describe the delivery of online interventions via computers and devices, sessions will also focus on innovative approaches to implementing the interventions in low-resource settings.

The events are called “Unconferences” because the sessions are informal in nature and attendees can select sessions to join across the day. Attendees can participate by asking the presenters questions through the chat box and by responding to polls that capture reactions and views on topics.

Schedule and Information about the Virtual Unconferences in Education:

National K12 Student Challenge

ED/IES SBIR awardee Future Engineers (@K12FutureE) launched a nation-wide challenge for K12 students to submit entries to “invent a way to make someone smile or feel appreciated during COVID19.” Teachers can sign up a class to participate or students can participate on their own. See this page for more information and to submit an entry.

Stay tuned to the Inside IES Blog for more information and resources about the response to the COVID19 in education.

 


Edward Metz is a research scientist and the program manager for the Small Business Innovation Research Program at the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Please contact Edward.Metz@ed.gov with questions or for more information.

 

ASSISTments: From Research to Practice at Scale in Education

ASSISTments is a free, web-based formative assessment platform for teachers and students in Grades 3 through 12. The tool is designed for teachers to easily assign students math problems from OER textbooks such as Illustrative Math and EngageNY, existing item banks, or items they have developed on their own. ASSISTments will continually assess students as they solve math problems and provide immediate feedback and the chance to try again. The computer-generated reports provide teachers with information to make real-time adjustments to their instruction. Teachers can use it with their school’s existing learner management systems, such as Google Classroom and Canvas. Watch a video here.

 

 

Over the past 13 years, ASSISTments was developed and evaluated with the support of a series of IES and National Science Foundation awards. With a 2003 IES award to Carnegie Mellon University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), researchers created the first version of ASSISTments. The system was populated with Massachusetts high-stakes mathematics test questions and the tutoring for the questions was authored by WPI staff with assistance from local teachers. After students completed problems assigned by the teacher, reports provided teachers with information about question difficulty and the most commonly submitted wrong answers, initiating class discussions around the completed assignments. In 2007, researchers at WPI received an award to build additional functionalities in the ASSISTments program so that teachers could assign supports (called “skill builders”) to students to help them master content.  An additional eight grants allowed the researchers to create other features. 

With a 2012 IES research grant award, SRI evaluated the efficacy of the ASSISTments program as a homework tool for academic learning.  In the study, the researchers took all 7th grade textbooks in the State of Maine and added answers to homework problems into ASSISTments.  The results of the efficacy trial demonstrated that teachers changed their homework reviewing behavior, mathematical learning improved an extra three quarters of a year of schooling, and using ASSISTments reliably closed achievement gaps for students with different achievement levels. ASSISTments is currently being evaluated again through two IES studies, with over 120 schools, to attempt to replicate this result. To view all publications related to ASSISTments, see here.

As of 2020, ASSISTments has been used by approximately 60,000 students with over 12 million problems solved.

 

Interview with Neil Heffernan and Cristina Heffernan

From the start of the project, was it always a goal that ASSISTments would one day be used on a wide scale?

We created ASSISTments to help as many teachers and students as possible. After we learned that the ASSISTments intervention was effective, we set the goal to have every middle school student in the country get immediate feedback on their homework. We created ASSISTments to be used by real teachers and have been improving it with each grant. Because of the effectiveness of ASSISTments, we kept getting funded to make improvements allowing our user base to grow.

At what point was ASSISTments ready to be used at a large scale in schools?

We were ready in year one because of the simplicity of our software. Now that we integrated seamlessly with Google Classroom, most teachers can use the system without training!

ASSISTments is backed by a lot of research, which would make some think that it would be easy for many schools to adopt. What were (or are) the biggest obstacles to ASSISTments being used in more schools?

A big obstacle has been access to technology for all students. The current environment in schools is making that less and less of a barrier. Now, teachers are looking for effective ways to use the computers they have.      

What options did you consider to begin distributing ASSISTments?

We had major companies try to buy us out, but we turned them all down. We knew the value was being in control so we could run research studies, let others run research studies and AB test new ideas. It was important to us to keep ASSISTments free to teachers. It is also a necessity since we crowdsource from teachers.

How do you do marketing?

Our biggest obstacle is marketing. But we are lucky to have just received $1 million in funding from a philanthropy to create a nonprofit to support the work of making our product accessible. Foundation funding has allowed us to hire staff members to write marketing materials including a new website, op-eds, blog posts and press releases. In addition to our internal marketing staff member, we work extensively with The Learning Agency to get press and foundation support for ASSISTments.

What costs are associated with the launch and distribution of ASSISTments, including marketing? Will a revenue model needed sustain ASSISTments over time?

When creating ASSISTments, we didn’t want a traditional business model based on schools paying. Our vision for future growth, instead, focused on crowdsourcing ideas from teachers and testing them. We are trying to replicate the Wikimedia platform idea created by Jimmy Wales. He crowdsources the content that makes up the encyclopedia, so it must be free. We envision using ASSISTments to help us crowdsource hints and explanations for all the commonly used questions in middle school mathematics.  

Do you have any agreement about the IP with the universities where ASSISTments was developed?

The ASSISTments Foundation was founded in 2019 and supports our project work in tandem with Worcester Polytechnic Institute due to our integration with research. The close relationship takes care of any issues that would arise with intellectual property. Additionally, the fact that we are a nonprofit helps address these issues.

How do you describe the experience of commercializing ASSISTments? What would you say is most needed for gaining traction in the marketplace?

Even though we are free, we do have several competitors. To gain traction, we have found that word of mouth is an effective disseminator and our positive efficacy trial result. Currently, there are many teachers on Facebook sharing how much they like ASSISTments. We also attend conferences and are working on an email campaign to get new users onboard.

Do you have advice for university researchers seeking to move their laboratory research into widespread practice?

Make sure your work is accessible and meaningful! We are solving a super-pervasive problem of homework in schools. Everyone finds meaning in making homework better.


Neil Heffernan (@NeilTHeffernan) is a professor of computer science and Director of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  He developed ASSISTments not only to help teachers be more effective in the classroom but also so that he could use the platform to conduct studies to improve the quality of education.  

Cristina Heffernan (@CristinaHeff) is the Lead Strategist for the ASSISTments Project at WPI. She began her career in education as a math teacher in the Peace Corps and after went on to teach middle school math in the US.  She began working with teachers while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. As one of the co-founders of ASSISTments, Cristina has nurtured the system to be a tool for teachers to improve what they already do well in the classroom. 


This interview was produced by Edward Metz of the Institute of Education Sciences. This is the fourth in an ongoing series of blog posts examining moving from university research to practice at scale in education.​