Scaling Students’ Success with STARI


The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated longstanding equity gaps in the reading achievement of middle school students. Educators now face the challenge of how best to accelerate the learning of adolescents who are reading below grade level. Helping these students catch up is important because middle school students who struggle with their reading are at a greater risk of not graduating from high school. At the same time, it is particularly challenging to reduce the learning gaps of adolescents because of the changes in motivation and engagement that occur during this period of development.

Developed by the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) Institute, Harvard University, and Wheelock College, the Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention (STARI) is year-long program intentionally designed to address the motivational barriers faced by struggling middle school readers. STARI tackles gaps in students’ basic reading skills, but, unlike other interventions, it seamlessly integrates those skills with complex comprehension tasks and grade-level reading instruction and gives a central role to student motivation. Students receive the STARI intervention in addition to their regular English Language Arts (ELA) class, during an elective period or an intervention period. All STARI curriculum materials are freely downloadable.

STARI has received an Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) evidence rating of Tier 1 (strong) based on prior research showing that it has a positive effect on the reading skills of middle students who are reading below grade level. A small-scale randomized trial of STARI, conducted in school year 2013-14 in a Northeastern state, found statistically significant positive effects on students’ word recognition, reading fluency, and morphological awareness. Another small-scale randomized trial, conducted by MDRC in two urban school districts in school year 2021-22 during the COVID-19 pandemic, found statistically positive and meaningfully large effects on students’ ELA state test scores.

Based on the strength of this evidence, in 2023 SERP was awarded an Education Innovation and Research (EIR) expansion grant from the U.S. Department of Education to scale up and evaluate STARI. The contribution of this new project will be to examine whether STARI’s effects can be replicated in a more geographically diverse set of districts, including rural districts, and to evaluate STARI’s effects for an expanded target population of students that also includes students who scored at a below-basic level on their state ELA test, students with an individualized education plan (IEP), and English language learners.

Two strategies will be used to support STARI implementation at a larger scale. First, SERP has created an online professional learning series for teachers, which will make it possible to bring STARI to rural districts and to shift the delivery and ownership of teacher training into the hands of local instructional leaders. Second, SERP will develop a web-based phonics supplement to the STARI curriculum, which will make it possible for schools to offer STARI to a more diverse group of students, including middle school students who are reading especially far below grade level.

The effect of STARI on students’ reading outcomes in this project will be evaluated using a school-level random assignment research design. Schools will be randomly assigned to begin STARI implementation immediately or with a delay. The study will also examine what resources are needed to support adoption and sustained implementation of STARI, and it will continue to build evidence on how best to support struggling middle school readers.

The evaluation is supported by an Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant from the US Department of Education.