Research Explores Impact of Summer Learning Loss on Student Achievement Gaps

I’m proud to share the following from our guest bloggers, Kingsbury Data Award recipients Andrew McEachin and Allison Atteberry.
                                                –  Nate Jensen

Summer Learning LossResearchers, teachers, and parents have known for a long time that a majority of the factors that influence students’ achievement and other outcomes occur outside of the control of teachers. Most estimates suggest that approximately 75 percent of a students’ achievement is produced by factors unrelated to what happens within students’ classrooms (for a gentle introduction see here). One of the most important of these factors is the annual long summer vacation. The research on the influence of the summer break on students’ achievement (here and here, for example) demonstrates three key points. First, the achievement gaps among class and racial/ethnic lines – which education stakeholders rightfully spend a lot of time talking about – already exist at the start of kindergarten. Second, students learn at roughly the same rate during the school year, which indicates that the achievement gaps do not widen significantly during the school year. Third, achievement gaps widen during the summer period when students are not under the direction of teachers and schools.

The implications of the summer learning loss research suggest that summers may play a very influential role in how we hold teachers and schools accountable. If it is known that achievement gaps widen over the summer, and that students are not randomly assigned to schools, and student achievement is only measured each spring, then our common measures of student achievement growth may need revising. In fact, in our working paper utilizing MAP assessment data from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), we find that the summer period induces a bias in school accountability models that especially affects schools serving larger shares of traditionally under-served students. If instead teachers and schools are held accountable for just the learning that happens during the school year by assessing students in the fall and spring, as is possible with assessments like the NWEA MAP assessment, schools serving traditionally under-served students are much more likely to attain the same performance label as their wealthier peers. Federal and state policymakers, who by and large continue to advocate for growth and/or value-add evaluation models, should take note that this small adjustment can significantly reduce the bias in teacher and school accountability models.

Andrew McEachin, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Adult and Higher Education at North Carolina State University.

Allison Atteberry, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant Professor of Education Policy in University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. Dr. McEachin and Dr. Atteberry received a Kingsbury Data Award last year to study the impact of summer learning loss on measures of school performance. Here is an update on their continuing work in this area.