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The Reading First Impact Study


  • Congress spent billions to improve teaching of reading.
  • The Abt team evaluated the Reading First program’s impact.
  • The program improved teaching practices but not reading comprehension scores.
The Challenge

The Reading First program, established under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, was $1 billion-a-year federal initiative to ensure that the nation’s children read at, or above, grade level by the end of third grade. The means to achieve the goal was to improve the quality of reading instruction nationwide. 

The Approach

The Abt team studied the impact of the program for the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The study sample included 248 schools in 18 sites in 13 states. During the six-year contract, the study assessed the reading skills of more than 30,000 first-through-third graders four times and conducted more than 1,300 classroom observations of first- and second-grade classrooms. Abt’s study represented the department’s first large-scale use of a regression discontinuity design. 

The Results

The study provided critical information to federal policy makers on the impact of the Reading First Program and on the relationship between the degree of implementation of scientifically-based reading instruction and student reading achievement. The study found that Reading First: 

  • Increased instructional time spent on five essential reading instruction components  

  • Increased use of multiple practices the program promotes  

  • Did not improve student reading comprehension test scores 

  • Improved decoding among first grade students 

Read the final report.