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

Effects of First Grade Technology Products

The first grade study was based on five reading software products that were implemented in 11 districts and 43 schools. The sample included 158 teachers and 2,619 students. The five products were Destination Reading (published by Riverdeep), the Waterford Early Reading Program (published by Pearson Digital Learning), Headsprout (published by Headsprout), Plato Focus (published by Plato), and the Academy of Reading (published by Autoskill).

Products provided instruction and demonstration in tutorial modules, allowed students to apply skills in practice modules, and tested students on their ability to apply skills in assessment modules. (The tutorial-practice-assessment modular structure was common for products at other grade levels as well.) Their focus was on improving skills in letter recognition, phonemic awareness, word recognition and word attack, vocabulary building, and text comprehension. The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $100 a student for the school year, with a range of $53 to $124.

According to records maintained by product software, usage by individual students averaged almost 30 hours a year, which the study estimated to be about 11 percent of reading instructional time. Some control group teachers used technology-based reading products that were not in the study. These products generally allowed students to practice various skills. Software-based records of student usage of these other products were not collected, but control teachers reported using them about a fifth as much as treatment teachers reported using study products.

First grade reading products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero. Figure 1 shows observed score differences on the SAT-9 reading test, and Figure 2 shows observed score differences on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency. The differences are shown in "effect size" units, which allow the study to compare results for tests whose scores are reported in different units. (The study's particular measure of effect size is the score difference divided by the standard deviation of the control group test-score.) Effect sizes are consistent for the two tests and their subtests, in the range of -0.01 to 0.06. These effect sizes are equivalent to increases in student percentile ranks of about 0 to 2 points. None is statistically significant.

Large differences in effects were observed between schools. Because only a few teachers implemented products in each school, sampling variance (the assignment of teachers to treatment and control groups) can explain much of the observed differences, but the study also investigated whether the differences were correlated with school and classroom characteristics. Relationships between school and classroom characteristics and score differences cannot be interpreted as causal, because districts and schools volunteered to participate in the study and to implement particular products. Their characteristics (many of which the study did not observe) may influence observed effects. For first grade, effects were larger when schools had smaller student-teacher ratios (a measure of class size). Other characteristics, including teacher experience and education, school racial-ethnic composition, and the amount of time that products were used during the school year, were not correlated with effects.