Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Exploration in the World of Experimental Evaluation

Our 300+ page report marks a good start into this exploration. But IES, faced with limited time and resources to complete the many experiments being conducted within the Regional Education Lab system, put strict limits on the number of exploratory analyses researchers could conduct. We usually think of exploratory work as questions to follow up on puzzling or unanticipated results. However, in the case of the REL experiments, IES asked researchers to focus on a narrow set of “confirmatory” results and anything else was considered “exploratory,” even if the question was included in the original research design.

The strict IES criteria were based on the principle that when a researcher is using tests of statistical significance, the probability of erroneously concluding that there is an impact when there isn’t one increases with the frequency of the tests. In our evaluation of AMSTI, we limited ourselves to only four such “confirmatory” (i.e., not exploratory) tests of statistical significance. These were used to assess whether there was an effect on student outcomes for math problem-solving and for science, and the amount of time teachers spent on “active learning” practices in math and in science. (Technically, IES considered this two sets of two, since two were the primary student outcomes and two were the intermediate teacher outcomes.) The threshold for significance was made more stringent to keep the probability of falsely concluding that there was a difference for any of the outcomes at 5% (often expressed as p < .05).

While the logic for limiting the number of confirmatory outcomes is based on technical arguments about adjustments for multiple comparisons, the limit on the amount of exploratory work was based more on resource constraints. Researchers are notorious (and we don’t exempt ourselves) for finding more questions in any study than were originally asked. Curiosity-based exploration can indeed go on forever. In the case of our evaluation of AMSTI, however, there were a number of fundamental policy questions that were not answered either by the confirmatory or by the exploratory questions in our report. More research is needed.

Take the confirmatory finding that the program resulted in the equivalent of 28 days of additional math instruction (or technically an impact of 5% of a standard deviation). This is a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of the AMSTI team and the commitment of the school systems. From a state policy perspective, it gives a green light to continuing the initiative’s organic growth. But since all the schools in the experiment applied to join AMSTI, we don’t know what would happen if AMSTI were adopted as the state curriculum requiring schools with less interest to implement it. Our results do not generalize to that situation. Likewise, if another state with different levels of achievement or resources were to consider adopting it, we would say that our study gives good reason to try it but, to quote Lee Cronbach, a methodologist whose ideas increasingly resonate as we translate research into practice: “…positive results obtained with a new procedure for early education in one community warrant another community trying it. But instead of trusting that those results generalize, the next community needs its own local evaluation” (Cronbach, 1975, p. 125).

The explorations we conducted as part of the AMSTI evaluation did not take the usual form of deeper examinations of interesting or unexpected findings uncovered during the planned evaluation. All the reported explorations were questions posed in the original study plan. They were defined as exploratory either because they were considered of secondary interest, such as the outcome for reading, or because they were not a direct causal result of the randomization, such as the results for subgroups of students defined by different demographic categories. Nevertheless, exploration of such differences is important for understanding how and for whom AMSTI works. The overall effect, averaging across subgroups, may mask differences that are of critical importance for policy.

Readers interested in the issue of subgroup differences can refer to Table 6.11. Once differences are found in groups defined in terms of individual student characteristics, our real exploration is just beginning. For example, can the difference be accounted for by other characteristics or combinations of characteristics? Is there something that differentiates the classes or schools that different students attend? Such questions begin to probe additional factors that can potentially be addressed in the program or its implementation. In any case, the report just released is not the “final report.” There is still a lot of work necessary to understand how any program of this sort can continue to be improved.

–DN & AJ

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