This article first appeared in the OCTAE Connection newsletter March 26, 2015. You can access that issue here.
OCTAE commissioned Dr. Stephen Reder, professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University, to create five research briefs using that university’s Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) data to examine the long-term impacts of adult basic skills (ABS) program participation on a range of outcome measures. The study was part of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Literacy. All entities interested in or serving adult learners are encouraged to review each of the briefs in their entirety for a comprehensive discussion of the findings, as well as data graphics, and references. Links to each of them can be found in the summaries below. PDFs for the series may be accessed on LINCS.
Background: National as well as international studies, including the Survey of Adult Skills, demonstrate the need and economic value of ABS. Yet, there is little rigorous research demonstrating that participation in basic skills programs directly impacts the skill levels, educational attainment, or social and economic well-being of adults with low levels of education.
Most research on adult literacy development has only examined the short-term changes occurring as students pass through single ABS programs. Most studies use short follow-up intervals and include only program participants—making it difficult to see the long-term patterns of both program participation and persistence, and the ability to assess the long-term impact of ABS program participation. ABS program evaluation and accountability studies have shown small gains for program participants in test scores and other outcomes, but they rarely include comparison groups of nonparticipants and, studies that do include such controls have not found statistically significant ABS program impact. In short, more research is needed that compares adult literacy development among program participants and nonparticipants across multiple contexts and over significant periods of time. This will provide life-wide and lifelong perspectives on adult literacy development and a better assessment of program impacts on a range of outcome measures.
The LSAL is one study that does address these long-term impacts. Between 1998 and 2007, LSAL randomly sampled and tracked nearly 1,000 high school dropouts’ participation in ABS programs. The study assessed their literacy skills and skill uses over time, along with changes in their social, educational, and economic status, to provide a more comprehensive representation of adult literacy development.
The Impact of ABS Program Participation on Long-Term Economic Outcomes considers the long-term impact of participation in ABS programs on individuals’ earnings. The research results show that individuals who participate in ABS programs have higher future earnings as a result of participating, and their income premiums are larger with more intensive participation. Minimal levels of participation do not produce statistically significant premiums, but 100 hours or more of attendance were found to equate to extra earnings of $9,621 per year, in 2013 dollars.
The Impact of ABS Program Participation on Long-Term Literacy Growth examines the effect of ABS participation on students’ literacy proficiency. The study finds that individuals who participate in at least 100 hours of ABS programs tend to have correspondingly higher levels of literacy proficiency. Their proficiency premiums are larger with more intensive participation. This statistically significant but modest literacy premium (an average of 15 points on a 500 point scale) takes time (on the order of years) to develop after participation. Minimal levels of participation, however, may not produce significant premiums. LSAL’s relatively small sample size limits precise estimates of how many hours of attendance or how long a follow-up period are needed to see a significant literacy dividend of a given size. GED attainment does not seem to mediate the long-term impact of participation on literacy.
The Impact of ABS Program Participation on Long-Term GED Attainment examines the impact of ABS participation on General Educational Development (GED) credential attainment. While student “participation patterns in LSAL were often complex and fragmented—with many adults having multiple episodes of participation at different times and in different programs across the years of the study”—the findings nevertheless demonstrated the robust impact and importance of ABS program participation on GED attainment. The overall GED attainment rate for those whose goal was to obtain a GED is estimated to have risen from 16 percent to 36 percent because of ABS program participation. Although individuals used a variety of methods for GED preparation, including ABS program participation, GED attainment rates for all groups appear to have been elevated substantially by program participation.
The Impact of ABS Program Participation on Long-Term Postsecondary Engagement The study found a robust impact of ABS participation on engagement in postsecondary education at any level of attendance. “The estimated impact of ABS participation on postsecondary engagement appears to be considerably larger in models using more intensive attendance criteria.” These programs are increasing ABS students’ success in the early stages of postsecondary engagement (matriculating into college, receiving credits for college courses). In short, despite methodological limitations, the analyses of the LSAL data show the importance of ABS programs as effective “on-ramps” for this nontraditional student population in supporting postsecondary engagement.
The Long-Term Impact of ABS Program Participation on Voting The study considers ABS program participation that occurred between the 1996 and 2004 general elections, in assessing the impact of participation on changes in voting behavior between the elections. Findings indicated that there was little evidence of an impact of ABS program participation on voting. While the difference-in-differences (DID) analysis shows a larger increase in voting rates over time for program participants, it is not statistically significant. “It is important to note, however, the relatively small subsample size that was available for analysis of the voting data—the corresponding loss of statistical power increases the likelihood of failing to detect an actual impact of participation on voting behavior. LSAL also did not have the ability to validate self-reported voting against administrative records, as was done with self-reported GED attainment and postsecondary engagement. Therefore, it is unknown whether ABS program participation would increase future over reporting compared with the future self-reporting of nonparticipants. Additional research is needed to better determine the impact of program participation, if any, on voting behavior and other measures of civic participation.”
Key Take-aways from the Briefs:
- Participants in ABS programs experience significant, and, in some cases, substantial increases in long-term educational and economic outcomes.
- The enhanced outcomes require an average of 100 or more cumulative hours of program attendance.
- The enhanced outcomes do not typically appear until several years following program participation.
- The income premiums to ABS program participation average $10,000 per year, in 2013 dollars.
- The overall GED attainment rate is estimated to have risen from 16 percent to 36 percent because of ABS program participation. ABS programs appeared to be effective “on-ramps” into postsecondary education, but additional supports are likely needed for completion.