Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

IES Makes Three New Awards to Accelerate Breakthroughs in the Education Field

Through the Transformative Research in the Education Sciences Grants program (ALN 84.305T), IES  invests in innovative research that has the potential to make dramatic advances towards solving seemingly intractable problems and challenges in the education field, as well as to accelerate the pace of conducting education research to facilitate major breakthroughs. In the most recent FY 2024 competition for this program, IES invited applications from partnerships between researchers, product developers, and education agencies to propose transformative solutions to major education problems that leverage advances in technology combined with research insights from the learning sciences.

IES is thrilled to announce that three grants have been awarded in the FY 2024 competition. Building on 20 years of IES research funding to lay the groundwork for advances, these three projects focus on exploring potentially transformative uses of generative artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver solutions that can scale in the education marketplace if they demonstrate positive impacts on education outcomes. The three grants are:

Active Learning at Scale (Active L@S): Transforming Teaching and Learning via Large-Scale Learning Science and Generative AI

Awardee: Arizona State University (ASU; PI: Danielle McNamara)

The project team aims to solve the challenge that postsecondary learners need access to course materials and high-quality just-in-time generative learning activities flexibly and on-the-go.  The solution will be a mobile technology that uses interactive, research-informed, and engaging learning activities created on the fly, customized to any course content with large language models (LLMs). The project team will leverage two digital learning platforms from the SEERNet networkTerracotta and ASU Learning@Scale – to conduct research and will include over 100,000 diverse students at ASU, with replication studies taking place at Indiana University (IU). IES funding has supported a large portion of the research used to identify the generative learning activities the team will integrate into the system—note-taking, self-explanation, summarization, and question answering (also known as retrieval practice). The ASU team includes in-house technology developers and researchers, and they are partnering with researchers at IU and developers at INFLO and Clevent AI Technology LLC. The ASU and IU teams will have the educator perspective represented on their teams, as these universities provide postsecondary education to large and diverse student populations.

Talking Math: Improving Math Performance and Engagement Through AI-Enabled Conversational Tutoring

Awardee: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (PI: Neil Heffernan)

The project team aims to provide a comprehensive strategy to address persistent achievement gaps in math by supporting students during their out-of-school time. The team will combine an evidence-based learning system with advances in generative AI to develop a conversational AI tutor (CAIT– pronounced as “Kate”) to support independent math practice for middle school students who struggle with math, and otherwise, may not have access to after-school tutoring. CAIT will be integrated into ASSISTments, a freely available, evidence-based online math platform with widely used homework assignments from open education resources (OER). This solution aims to dramatically improve engagement and math learning during independent math problem-solving time. The team will conduct research throughout the product development process to ensure that CAIT is effective in supporting math problem solving and is engaging and supportive for all students. ASSISTments has been used by over 1 million students and 30,000 teachers, and IES has supported its development and efficacy since 2003. The project team includes researchers and developers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the ASSISTments Foundation, researchers from WestEd, educator representation from Greater Commonwealth Virtual School, and a teacher design team.

Scenario-Based Assessment in the age of generative AI: Making space in the education market for alternative assessment paradigm

Awardee: University of Memphis (PI: John Sabatini)

Educators face many challenges building high-quality assessments aligned to course content, and traditional assessment practices often lack applicability to real world scenarios. To transform postsecondary education, there needs to be a shift in how knowledge and skills are assessed to better emphasize critical thinking, complex reasoning, and problem solving in practical contexts. Supported in large part by numerous IES-funded projects, including as part of the Reading for Understanding Initiative, the project team has developed a framework for scenario-based assessments (SBAs). SBAs place knowledge and skills into a practical context and provide students with the opportunity to apply their content knowledge and critical thinking skills. The project team will leverage generative AI along with their framework for SBAs to create a system for postsecondary educators to design and administer discipline-specific SBAs with personalized feedback to students, high levels of adaptivity, and rich diagnostic information with little additional instructor effort. The project team includes researchers, developers, and educators at University of Memphis and Georgia State University, researchers and developers at Educational Testing Service (ETS), and developers from multiple small businesses including Capti/Charmtech, MindTrust, Caimber/AMI, and Workbay who will participate as part of a technical advisory group.

We are excited by the transformative potential of these projects and look forward to seeing what these interdisciplinary teams can accomplish together. While we are hopeful the solutions they create will make a big impact on learners across the nation, we will also share lessons learned with the field about how to build interdisciplinary partnerships to conduct transformative research and development.

For questions or to learn more about the Transformative Research in the Education Sciences grant program, please contact Erin Higgins (, Program Lead for the Accelerate, Transform, Scale Initiative.

What We are Learning from NAEP Data About Use of Extended Time Accommodations

For students with learning disabilities, many of whom may take more time to read and process information than non-disabled peers, an extended time accommodation (ETA) is often used on standardized assessments. In 2021, IES awarded a grant for researchers to explore the test-taking behavior, including use of accommodations such as ETA, of students with disabilities in middle school using response process data from the NAEP mathematics assessment. In this blog, we interview Dr. Xin Wei from Digital Promise to see what she and Dr. Susu Zhang from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are learning from their study.

The researchers have delved into the performance, process, and survey data of the eighth graders who took the digital NAEP mathematics test in 2017. Their recent article presents a quasi-experimental study examining the differences in these data across three distinct profiles of students with learning disabilities (LDs)—students with LD who received and utilized ETAs, students with LD who were granted ETAs but did not use them, and students with LD who did not receive ETAs.

The key findings from their study are as follows:

  • Students with LDs who used their ETAs performed statistically significantly better than their peers with LDs who were not granted ETA and those who received ETA but did not use it. They also engaged more with the test, as demonstrated by more frequent actions, revisits to items, and greater use of universal design features like drawing tool and text-to-speech functionalities on most of the math items compared to students who were not granted extended time.
  • Students with LDs who had ETAs but chose not to use them performed significantly worse than their peers with LDs who were not granted extended time.
  • Students with LDs who were granted ETAs saw the best performance with an additional 50% time (45 minutes compared to the usual 30 minutes provided to students without ETA).
  • Students who were given extra time, regardless of whether they used it, reported feeling less time pressure, higher math interest, and enjoying math more.
  • There were certain item types for which students who used ETAs performed more favorably.

We recently discussed the results of the study with Dr. Wei to learn more.

Which types of items on the test favored students who used extended time and why do you think they benefited?

Headshot of Xin Wei

The assessment items that particularly benefited from ETAs were not only complex but also inherently time-consuming. For example, students need to complete four sub-questions for item 5, drag six numbers to the correct places for item 6, type answers into four places to complete an equation for item 9, type in a constructive response answer for item 11, and complete a multiple-choice question and type answers in eight places to complete item 13.

For students with LDs, who often have slower processing speeds, these tasks become even more time-intensive. The additional time allows students to engage with each element of the question thoroughly, ensuring they have the opportunity to fully understand and respond to each part. This extended time is not just about accommodating different processing speeds; it's about providing the necessary space for these students to engage with and complete tasks that are intricate and time-consuming by design.

Why did you decide to look at the additional survey data NAEP collects on math interest and enjoyment in your study of extended time?

These affective factors are pivotal to academic success, particularly in STEM fields. Students who enjoy the subject matter tend to perform better, pursue related fields, and continue learning throughout their lives. This is especially relevant for students with LDs, who often face heightened test anxiety and lower interest in math, which can be exacerbated by the pressure of timed assessments. Our study's focus on these affective components revealed that students granted extra time reported a higher level of math interest and enjoyment even if they did not use the extra time. ETAs appear to alleviate the stress tied to time limits, offering dual advantages by not only aiding in academic achievement but also by improving attitudes toward math. ETAs could be a low-cost, high-impact accommodation that not only addresses academic needs but also contributes to emotional health.

What recommendations do you have based on your findings for classroom instruction?

First, it is crucial to prioritize extra time for students with LDs to enhance their academic performance and engagement. This involves offering flexible timing for assignments and assessments to reduce anxiety and foster a greater interest in learning. Teachers should be encouraged to integrate Universal Design for Learning principles into their instructional methods, emphasizing the effective use of technology, such as text-to-speech tools and embedded digital highlighters and pencils for doing scratchwork. Professional development for educators is essential to deepen their proficiency in using digital learning tools. Additionally, teachers should motivate students to use the extra time for thorough problem-solving and to revisit math tasks for accuracy. Regularly adjusting accommodations to meet the evolving needs of students with LDs is vital in creating an inclusive learning environment where every student can achieve success.

What is the implication of the study findings on education equity? 

Our study demonstrates that ETAs offer more than just a performance boost: they provide psychological benefits, reducing stress and enhancing interest and enjoyment with the subject matter. This is vital for students with LDs, who often face heightened anxiety and performance pressure. To make the system more equitable, we need a standardized policy for accommodations that ensures all students who require ETAs receive them. We must consider the variable needs of all students and question the current practices and policies that create inconsistencies in granting accommodations. If the true aim of assessments is to gauge student abilities, time is a factor that should not become a barrier.

U.S. Department of Education Resources

Learn more about the Department’s resources to support schools, educators, and families in making curriculum, instruction, and assessment accessible for students with disabilities.

Learn more about conducting research using response process data from the 2017 NAEP Mathematics Assessment.


This  interview blog was produced by Sarah Brasiel (, a program officer in the National Center for Special Education Research.

The Impact of Parent-Mediated Early Intervention on Social Communication for Children with Autism

A key challenge for children with autism is the need to strengthen social communication, something that can be supported early in a child’s development. Dr. Hannah Schertz, professor at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Education, has conducted a series of IES-funded projects to develop and evaluate the impact of early intervention, mediated through parents, for improving social communication in toddlers with or at risk for autism. We recently interviewed Dr. Schertz to learn more about the importance of guiding parents in the use of mediated learning practices to promote social communication, how her current research connects with her prior research, and what she hopes to accomplish.

Why is parental mediation in early intervention important for very young children with autism? How does it work and why do you focus this approach on improving children’s social communication development?

Headshot of Hannah Schertz

The intervention targets social communication because it is the core autism challenge and it’s important to address concerns early, as signs of autism emerge. Research has found that preverbal social communication is related to later language competency. Our premise is that this foundation will give toddlers a reason to communicate and set the stage for verbal communication. More specifically, joint attention—one preverbal form of social communication—is the key intervention target in our research. It is distinct from requesting/directing or following requests, which are instrumental communications used to accomplish one’s own ends. Joint attention, which takes the partner’s interests and perspectives into account, is an autism-specific challenge whereas more instrumental communication skills are not.

Our research team incorporates a mediated learning approach at two levels—early intervention providers supporting parents and then parents supporting their toddlers. The approach is designed to promote active engagement in the learning process and leverage the parent’s privileged relationship with the child as the venue for social learning. Early intervention providers help parents understand both the targeted social communication outcomes for their children (intervention content) and the mediated learning practices (intervention process) used to promote these child outcomes. As parents master these concepts, they can translate them flexibly into a variety of daily parent-child interactions. This understanding allows parents to naturally integrate learning opportunities with child interests and family cultural/language priorities and preferences. Over time, their accrued knowledge, experience, and increased self-efficacy should prepare them to continually support the child’s social learning even after their participation in the project ends.

How does your more recent work, developing and testing Building Interactive Social Communication (BISC), extend your prior research examining Joint Attention Mediated Learning (JAML)?

Both JAML and BISC address the same goal—supporting social communication as early signs of autism emerge. In JAML, researchers guided parent learning directly while parents incorporated social communication into interaction with their toddlers. BISC extends the intervention by supporting community-based practitioners in facilitating parent learning rather than parents learning directly from the research team. BISC also added a component to address cases in which parents identify child behaviors that substantially interfere with the child’s social engagement.

You recently completed a pilot study to test a new professional development framework for supporting early intervention providers in implementing BISC. Please tell us about the findings of this study. What were the impacts on the early intervention providers, parents, and toddlers?

We tested an early version of BISC to study its preliminary effects on early intervention provider, parent, and child outcomes for 12 provider/parent/child triads. In effect size estimates derived from single-case design data, we found large effects for early intervention provider fidelity (for example, mediating parent learning, guiding parents’ reflection on video-recorded interaction with their toddlers, and supporting active parent engagement) and parent application of mediated learning practices to promote toddler social communication. We also found large effects on child outcomes (social reciprocity, child behavior, and social play) and a small effect on joint attention.

As you begin your larger-scale trial to examine the efficacy of BISC on provider, parent, and child outcomes, what impact do you hope your work will have on the field of early intervention generally and the development of social communication in children with autism more specifically? 

Approximately 165 community-based early intervention practitioners will have learned to support parent learning through direct participation or as control group participants who receive self-study materials. These providers will be equipped to bring this knowledge to their future work. We anticipate that practitioners will experience their implementation role as feasible and effective. Ultimately, toddlers with early signs of autism will have greater access to early, developmentally appropriate, and family-empowering early intervention that directly addresses the core social difficulty of autism. Forthcoming published materials will extend access to other providers, offering an intervention that is more specifically tailored to the needs of very young children with social communication challenges than other approaches.

Is there anything else you would like to share/add regarding your projects? 

I would like to thank my colleagues and project co-principal investigators (Co-PIs) for their expertise and contributions to this work. For our current BISC efficacy project, Co-PI Dr. Patricia Muller (Director of the Center for Evaluation, Policy, and Research) is leading the randomized controlled trial and cost-effectiveness study, and Co-PI Dr. Jessica Lester (professor of Counseling and Educational Psychology) is overseeing the qualitative investigation of parent-child interactions using conversation analysis to explore potential influences on child outcomes. Kathryn Horn coordinates intervention activities, Lucia Zook oversees operational and assessment activities, and Addison McGeary supports recruitment and logistical activities.

This blog was authored by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. The grants in this connected line of research have been managed by Amy Sussman (PO for NCSER’s early intervention portfolio) and Emily Weaver (PO for NCSER’s autism research portfolio).

ED/IES SBIR Special Education Technology is Showcased at the White House Demo Day

On Tuesday, November 7, 2023, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a Demo Day of American Possibilities at the Showroom in Washington, DC.  The event featured 45 emerging technologies created by innovators through federal research and development programs across areas such as health, national security, AI, robotics, climate, microelectronics, and education. President Biden attended the event and met with several developers to learn about and see demonstrations of the innovations.

An IES-supported project by a Michigan-based Alchemie, the KASI Learning System (KASI), was invited to represent the U.S. Department of Education and its Small Business Innovation Research program, which IES administers.

KASI is an inclusive assistive technology that employs computer vision and multi-sensory augmented reality to support blind and low vision learners in using hand-held physical manipulatives to practice chemistry. A machine learning engine in KASI generates audio feedback and prompts to personalize the experience as learners progress. At the event, the project’s principal investigator and former high school chemistry educator, Julia Winter, demonstrated KASI to leaders in government and to attendees from the assistive technology field.

ED/IES SBIR supported the initial development for KASI through three awards. Based on these awards, Alchemie received funding from angel investors in Michigan, won a commercialization grant from the Michigan Emerging Technology Fund, and is establishing partnerships with publishers in K-12 and higher education. To extend KASI to more topics, Alchemie has won additional SBIR awards from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, and is currently a finalist in the 2024 Vital Prize Challenge competition. KASI has also recently been highlighted in Forbes and Crain’s Detroit Business.



Stay tuned for updates on KASI and other education technology projects through the ED/IES SBIR program on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

About ED/IES SBIR: The Department of Education’s (ED) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, administered by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), funds entrepreneurial developers to create the next generation of technology products for learners, educators, and administrators. The program, known as ED/IES SBIR, emphasizes an iterative design and development process and pilot research to test the feasibility, usability, and promise of new products to improve outcomes. The program also focuses on planning for commercialization so that the products can reach schools and end-users and be sustained over time. Millions of students in thousands of schools around the country use technologies developed through ED/IES SBIR.

Edward Metz ( is the Program Manager of the ED/IES SBIR program.

Laurie Hobbs ( is the Program Analyst of the ED/IES SBIR program.

Designing Culturally Responsive and Accessible Assessments for All Adult Learners

Dr. Meredith Larson, program officer for adult education at NCER, interviewed Dr. Javier Suárez-Álvarez, associate professor and associate director at the Center for Educational Assessment, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Suárez-Álvarez has served as the project director for the Adult Skills Assessment Project: Actionable Assessments for Adult Learners (ASAP) grant and was previously an education policy analyst in France for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where he was the lead author of the PISA report 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World. He and the ASAP team are working on an assessment system to meet the needs of adult education learners, educators, and employers that leverages online validated and culturally responsive banks of literacy and numeracy tasks. In this interview, Dr. Suárez-Álvarez discusses the importance of attending to learners’ goals and cultural diversity in assessment.

How would you describe the current context of assessment for adult education, and how does ASAP fit in it?

In general, the adult education field lacks assessments that meet the—sometimes competing—needs and goals of educators and employers and that attend to and embrace learner characteristics, goals, and cultural diversity. There is often a disconnect where different stakeholders want different things from the same assessments. Educators ask for curriculum-aligned assessments, learners want assessments to help them determine whether they have job-related skills for employment or promotion, and employers want to determine whether job candidates are trained in high-demand skills within their industries.

Despite these differing needs and interests, everyone involved needs assessment resources for lower skilled and culturally diverse learners that are easy to use, affordable or free, and provide actionable information for progress toward personal or occupational goals. ASAP is one of the first attempts to respond to these needs by developing an assessment system that delivers real-time customizable assessments to measure and improve literacy and numeracy skills. ASAP incorporates socioculturally responsive assessment principles to serve the needs of all learners by embracing the uniqueness of their characteristics. These principles involve ensuring that stakeholders from diverse socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, racial, and ethnic groups are represented in our test design and development activities.

Why is attending to cultural diversity important to ASAP and assessment, and how are you incorporating this into your work?

U.S. Census projections for 2045 predict a shift in the demographic composition of the population from a White majority to a racially mixed majority. This suggests that we should prepare for cultural shifts and ensure our assessments fully embrace socioculturally responsive assessment practices. Without these practices, assessments limit the ability of adults from varied demographic backgrounds to demonstrate their capabilities adequately. Socioculturally responsive assessments are pivotal for representing the growing diversity in the learner population and for uncovering undetected workforce potential.

In ASAP, we are conducting focus groups, interviews, and listening sessions with learners, educators, and employers to understand their needs. We are also co-designing items in collaboration with key stakeholders and building consensus across adult education, workforce, and policy experts. We are developing use cases to understand hypothetical product users and conducting case studies to establish linkages between instruction and assessment as well as across classroom and workplace settings.

How has your background informed your interest in and contributions to ASAP?

As a teenager growing up in Spain, I saw first-hand the possible negative impact assessments could have when they don’t attend to learner goals and circumstances. When I was 15, my English teacher, based on narrow assessments, told my parents I was incapable of learning English, doubted my academic potential, and suggested I forego higher education for immediate employment. Defying this with the support of other teachers and my family, I pursued my passion. I became proficient in English at the age of 25 when I needed it to be a researcher, and I completed my PhD in psychology (psychometrics) at the age of 28.

Many adult students may have heard similar messages from prior teachers based on assessment results. And even now, many of the assessments the adult education field currently uses for these learners are designed by and for a population that no longer represents most learners. These adult learners may be getting advice or feedback that does not actually reflect their abilities or doesn’t provide useful guidance. Unfortunately, not all students are as lucky as I was. They may not have the support of others to counterbalance narrow assessments, and that shouldn’t be the expectation.

What are your hopes for the future of assessments for this adult population and the programs and employers that support them?

I hope we switch from measuring what we know generally how to measure (such as math and reading knowledge on a multiple-choice test) to measuring what matters to test takers and those using assessment results so that they can all accomplish goals in ways that honor individuals’ circumstances. Knowledge and skills—like the real world—are much more than right and wrong responses on a multiple-choice item. I also hope that as we embrace the latest developments in technology, such as AI, we can use them to deliver more flexible and personalized assessments.

In addition, I hope we stop assuming every learner has the same opportunities to learn or the same goals for their learning and that we start using assessments to empower learners rather than just as a measure of learning. In ASAP, for example, the adult learner will decide the type of test they want to take when to take it, the context within which the assessment will be framed, and when, where, and to whom the assessment result will be delivered.

This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (, program officer for adult education at NCER.