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Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products: Findings from the First Student Cohort
NCEE 2007-4005
March 2007

Executive Summary

With computers now commonplace in American classrooms, and districts facing substantial costs of hardware and software, concerns naturally arise about the contribution of this technology to students' learning. The No Child Left Behind Act (P.L. 107-110, section 2421) called for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to conduct a national study of the effectiveness of educational technology. This legislation also called for the study to use "scientifically based research methods and control groups or control conditions" and to focus on the impact of technology on student academic achievement.

In 2003, ED contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR) and SRI International to conduct the study. The team worked with ED to select technology products; recruit school districts, schools, and teachers; test students; observe classrooms; and analyze the data. The study used an experimental design to assess the effects of technology products, with volunteering teachers randomly assigned to use or not use selected products.

The main findings of the study are:

  1. Test Scores Were Not Significantly Higher in Classrooms Using Selected Reading and Mathematics Software Products. Test scores in treatment classrooms that were randomly assigned to use products did not differ from test scores in control classrooms by statistically significant margins.
  2. Effects Were Correlated With Some Classroom and School Characteristics. For reading products, effects on overall test scores were correlated with the student-teacher ratio in first grade classrooms and with the amount of time that products were used in fourth grade classrooms. For math products, effects were uncorrelated with classroom and school characteristics.
Study Design

Intervention: Sixteen products were selected by ED based on public submissions and ratings by the study team and expert review panels. Products were grouped into four areas: first grade reading, fourth grade reading, sixth grade math, and algebra.

Participants: Thirty-three districts, 132 schools, and 439 teachers participated in the study. In first grade, 13 districts, 42 schools, and 158 teachers participated. In fourth grade, 11 districts, 43 schools, and 118 teachers participated. In sixth grade, 10 districts, 28 schools, and 81 teachers participated, and for algebra, 10 districts, 23 schools, and 71 teachers participated. Districts and schools could participate in the study at more than one grade level, and some did. Districts were recruited on the basis that they did not already use technology products that were similar to study products in participating schools.

Research Design: Within each school, teachers were randomly assigned to be able to use the study product (the treatment group) or not (the control group). Control group teachers were able to use other technology products that may have been in their classrooms. The study administered tests to students in both types of classrooms near the beginning and end of the school year. The study also observed treatment and control classrooms three times during the school year and collected data from teacher questionnaires and interviews, student records, and product records. Because students were clustered in classrooms, and classrooms were clustered in schools, effects were estimated using hierarchical linear models.

Outcomes Analyzed: Student test scores, classroom activities, and roles of teachers and students.

Educational technology is used for word processing, presentation, spreadsheets, databases, internet search, distance education, virtual schools, interactions with simulations and models, and collaboration over local and global networks. Technology also is used as assistive devices for students with disabilities and to teach concepts or skills that are difficult or impossible to convey without technology. This study is specifically focused on whether students had higher reading or math test scores when teachers had access to selected software products designed to support learning in reading or mathematics. It was not designed to assess the effectiveness of educational technology across its entire spectrum of uses, and the study's findings do not support conclusions about technology's effectiveness beyond the study's context, such as in other subject areas.

This report is the first of two from the study. Whether reading and mathematics software is more effective when teachers have more experience using it is being examined with a second year of data. The second year involves teachers who were in the first data collection (those who are teaching in the same school and at the same grade level or subject area) and a second cohort of students. The second report will present effects for individual products. The current report will present effects for groups of products.