The Reading First Impact Study employs a regression discontinuity design that capitalizes on the systematic process used by a number of school districts to allocate their Reading First funds. A regression discontinuity design is the strongest quasi-experimental method that exists for estimating program impacts. Under certain conditions, outlined below, all of which are met by the present study, this method can produce unbiased estimates of program impacts:
Under these conditions, there should be no systematic differences between eligible schools that did and did not receive Reading First grants (Reading First and non-Reading First schools respectively), except for the characteristics associated with the school rating used to determine the funding decision. By controlling for differences in schools' ratings, one can then control statistically for all systematic pre-existing differences between the two groups. This makes it possible to estimate the impact of Reading First by comparing the outcomes for Reading First schools and non-Reading First schools in the study sample, controlling for differences in their ratings. Non-Reading First schools in a regression discontinuity analysis thereby play the same role as do control schools in a randomized experiment—they represent the best indications of what outcomes would have been for the treatment group (Reading First schools) in the absence of the program being evaluated.