Abstinence education programs increased youth's support for abstinence

The initial findings from a one-year followup of 2,310 students participating in an evaluation of four abstinence-only education programs show that the programs increased support for abstinence.

The evidence on whether programs raised expectations to abstain is less clear. Because of the young age at which youth started participating in the programs, estimates of program impacts on sexual activity are not yet available but will be presented in the final evaluation report in 2006. The study is being conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and its subcontractor, the University of Pennsylvania.

“There has been a great deal of speculation about the effectiveness of abstinence-only education, both pro and con,” says Christopher Trenholm, a senior researcher and project director for the study at Mathematica. “This study offers policymakers and the public the most solid empirical evidence to date on this important issue. By using scientifically rigorous evaluation methods, this report on first-year impacts offers highly credible estimates of the impacts of abstinence-only education on attitudes and perceptions that may be related to longer-term teen risk behaviors. A subsequent report using follow-up data three to five years after youth began in the programs will offer a similarly strong basis for conclusions about whether these programs change sexual behavior.”

Nationwide, more than 900 Title V, Section 510 programs receive up to $50 million in federal funding and an additional $37.5 million in state funding annually. The four programs studied for this report are My Choice My Future in Powhatan County, Virginia; ReCapturing the Vision in Miami, Florida; Teens in Control in Clarksdale, Mississippi; and Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first two programs serve middle schoolers; the latter two primarily serve elementary students - see program descriptions attached. These programs were chosen because they were well designed, stable, and offered services consistent with Title V, Section 510 guidelines, among other reasons.

“When the longer-term follow-up data are available, this study will be the largest and most rigorous evaluation of abstinence education programs ever conducted. It will be the first rigorous study of multi-year interventions, and it will be the only study that has tracked its sample members for as long as five years,” says Rebecca Maynard, University Trustee Chair Professor of Education and Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and co-principal investigator for the study.

Key Findings

Programs increased the level and changed the content of health, family life, and sex education. Programs also increased participants' perceived value of these services. For example, program youth were significantly more likely than their control group counterparts to report that the classes or programs they attended had raised their knowledge of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Program youth were more likely to pledge abstinence. Youth in three of the four programs studied were significantly more likely than their control group counterparts to pledge to abstain from sex until marriage. The difference in pledge rates between youth in the program and control groups is particularly large for ReCapturing the Vision, which used pledging in its curriculum.

Programs increased support for abstinence . Program youth in three of the four programs reported having views more supportive of abstinence or less supportive of teen sex than did youth in the control group. Two of the four programs increased participants' perceptions of the negative consequences of teen and nonmarital sex.

Effects on expectations to abstain are not clear. The study's first-year followup examined expectations to abstain from sex in the two programs serving middle schoolers (My Choice My Future and ReCapturing the Vision). Youth in both programs reported higher expectations to remain abstinent than their control group counterparts. However, most differences are not statistically significant and could be due to chance.

Programs had no effects on other outcomes potentially related to teen risk behaviors . There is no evidence of program impacts on refusal skills or communication with parents. Likewise, there is little difference between the program and control groups in terms of their reported support for marriage, self-image, perceptions of peer pressure to have sex, or friends' support for abstinence.


The study used the most rigorous, scientifically based approach to measure the impacts of the programs. Much like a clinical trial in medicine, this approach compares outcomes for two statistically equivalent groups - a program group and a control group - created by random assignment. Youth in the program group were eligible for and expected to receive the abstinence education program services, while those in the control group received only the usual health, family life, and sex education services available in the school and community. Impacts were estimated as the mean difference in outcomes between the two groups. This type of design allows researchers to attribute any observed differences to the “treatment,” in this case, the abstinence education programs, with a known degree of confidence.

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. Across the four program sites, the sample size varied from 504 students to 849 students (including both those in the program group and control group). Data for the study were taken from independently supervised, group-administered surveys completed with youth at the time of their enrollment in the sample and again near the end of the first school year after enrollment. This first follow-up survey does not measure impacts of the full intended interventions, because youth in three of the four programs can participate beyond the one-year period that is the focus of the report. (The maximum duration of program participation ranges from one to four school years.)

The final report examining program impacts on behavioral outcomes will be based on data collected in two additional follow-up surveys administered to study youth three to five years after enrolling in the sample. By the time the last follow-up survey is completed, all youth will have experienced the full intended intervention, and most will have entered their mid- to late teens, permitting the researchers to measure program impacts on teen sexual activity and other risk behaviors reliably.

The report, “First-Year Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs,” by Rebecca A. Maynard, Christopher Trenholm, Barbara Devaney, Amy Johnson, Melissa A. Clark, John Homrighausen, and Ece Kalay, is available online at www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/firstyearabstinence.pdf . For more information, contact Mathematica Publications at (609) 275-2350. For more information about the study, go to www.mathematica-mpr.com/welfare/abstinence.asp.

Mathematica, a nonpartisan research firm, conducts policy research and surveys for federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector clients. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, N.J., Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Mass., has conducted some of the most important studies of education, health care, welfare, employment, nutrition, and early childhood policies and programs in the U.S. Mathematica strives to improve public well-being by bringing the highest standards of quality, objectivity, and excellence to bear on the provision of information collection and analysis to its clients.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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