Congress has authorized a scientifically rigorous, independent evaluation of the abstinence education programs funded under Title V Section 510 to determine the extent to which abstinence programs achieve six specific goals:
- Strengthen knowledge and attitudes supportive of abstinence
- Induce more youth to embrace abstinence from sexual activity as a personal goal
- Reduce sexual activity among youth
- Persuade sexually experienced youth to become and remain abstinent
- Lower the risk of STDs
- Lower the risk of nonmarital pregnancies
Obtaining clear and definitive evidence on the success of abstinence education programs in achieving these goals is a difficult task that requires time. Over the past four years, the evaluation effort has laid the foundation for a careful, comprehensive, and rigorous impact study and has successfully implemented the research design in the five targeted program sites. Study enrollment is completed, and longitudinal tracking of youth through surveys and school records is ongoing.
Critical features of the impact study design now under way are the following:
- The impact evaluation uses an experimental design. In each site, program effectiveness will be measured by comparing outcomes of eligible youth who were randomly assigned to the program or to a control group. The experimental design offers the only means of measuring, with a known degree of certainty, how successful the programs are overall and how well they serve key subgroups of youth. Other evaluation designs are vulnerable to “selection bias,” which can seriously undermine the credibility of their results.
- The impact evaluation has large sample sizes of between 400 and 700 youth per site. Large sample sizes protect against failing to detect true program impacts simply because the study lacked statistical power. Three years of study enrollment (fall 1999 through fall 2001) were necessary to achieve adequate sample sizes.
- The study sample is being followed for up to 36 months. Because so few youth engage in sexual activity before entering high school, outcome estimates based on middle school youth will miss program impacts on behaviors that could emerge later. The follow-up period for the evaluation is such that almost two-thirds of the study sample will be 14 to 18 years of age by the time of the final survey.