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At a Glance

Funder:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Secretary, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation

Project Time Frame:

1998-2007

Findings

Award

Project Publications

Testimonial

"It is a pleasure to let you know that this exceptionally fine report has been selected for this high honor. Among the many factors leading to this recognition were the study's impact on the field of teen sexual behavior, national policy, and national legislation; the appropriate and thorough attention to political viability; and the extensive and adroit measures and designs needed to study the challenging questions at all—let alone longitudinally."

Lois-ellin Datta, Chair
American Evaluation Association awards committee

 

Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V, Section 510

In 1996, Congress authorized $50 million annually for five years to states for abstinence education programs. The funding was established under Title V, Section 510 of the Social Security Act, authorized under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. States had to provide $3 in matching funds for every $4 of federal money, resulting in a total of up to $87.5 million available annually for these programs.

In 1998, Mathematica was commissioned to conduct a congressionally mandated evaluation of the effectiveness of abstinence education programs. Programs receiving these funds taught abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for school-age children and could not endorse or promote contraceptive use. The evaluation addressed the following questions:

  • What were the nature and underlying theories of the abstinence education programs supported with Section 510 funding?
  • What were the implementation and operational experiences of local communities and schools that received abstinence education funding?
  • What were the impacts of abstinence education programs?
  • How successful were they in changing the knowledge, attitudes, and intentions of youth?
  • How successful were they in reducing teen sexual activity among youth?
  • How did they change the risk of pregnancy and STDs?

The resulting multi-year evaluation used an experimental design to estimate impacts on youth attitudes and behaviors; eligible youth were randomly assigned to either the program group, which was offered abstinence-only education services, or the control group, which was not offered these services. Four rounds of follow-up data collection were completed to assess program impacts on attitudes and behaviors throughout the teen years. Although the evaluation produced numerous findings, two key findings were:

  • Youth in the program group were no more likely than those in the control group to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners.
  • Contrary to concerns raised by critics of abstinence education, youth in the program group were no more likely to have unprotected sex than youth in the control group.

The evaluation included an implementation and process analysis drawing on three data sources: (1) review of program documents and records; (2) interviews and focus groups with program staff, school staff, community leaders, parents, and program participants; and (3) on-site program observations.

Youth were enrolled in the study sample over three consecutive school years, from fall 1999 through fall 2001, and randomly assigned within schools to either the program or the control group. The results in this report were based on a survey given to 2,057 youth in 2005 and 2006, roughly four to six years after they began participating in the study; 1,209 had participated in one of the Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs and 848 had been assigned to the control group. By the time the last follow-up survey was completed, youth had entered their mid- to late teens, permitting the researchers to reliably measure program impacts on teen sexual activity and other risk behaviors.

The study highlighted the challenges faced by programs aiming to reduce adolescent sexual activity. Two lessons are important for future programming in this area:

1. Targeting youth at young ages may not be sufficient. Most Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs are implemented in upper elementary and middle schools and most are completed before youth enter high school. The findings from this study provide no evidence that abstinence programs implemented at these grades reduce sexual activity of youth during their high school years. However, the findings provide no information on the effects programs might have if they were implemented in high school or began at earlier ages but continued through high school.

2. Peer support for abstinence erodes during adolescence. Peer support for abstinence is a significant predictor of later sexual activity. Although the four abstinence programs had at most a small impact on this measure in the short term and no impact in the long term, this finding suggests that promoting support for abstinence among peer networks should be an important feature of future abstinence programs.

Award

Mathematica's abstinence study team, led by senior economist Christopher Trenholm and senior vice president Barbara Devaney, received the 2009 Outstanding Evaluation Award from the American Evaluation Association (AEA) at its annual conference in Orlando on November 13, 2009. The AEA cited the congressionally mandated, comprehensive nine-year evaluation of abstinence education programs for its rigor, balance, and impact, which led to major changes in federal policy and funding. The study was downloaded more than 100,000 times and was widely cited in the national and international media. Read the release.

Publications

"Impacts of Abstinence Education on Teen Sexual Activity, Risk of Pregnancy, and Risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases"Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (spring 2008)
"Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs" (April 2007) Full Report; Executive Summary
"Impacts of the Heritage Keepers® Life Skills Education Component" (August 2007)
"First Year Impacts of the Heritage Keepers® Life Skills Education Component" (August 2006)
"First-Year Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs" (June 2005)
"The Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V Section 510. Interim Report" (April 2002)