Summer learning loss: What we know and what we’re learning

It is widely understood that, on average, students lose academic ground during the summer, a phenomenon frequently referred to as “summer learning loss” or “summer slide.” But there are significant gaps in our research about summer learning loss that should compel us to take fresh— and deeper—looks at the phenomenon.

The highly cited foundational research study on the topic is a comprehensive meta-analysis of summer learning loss research. However, it was published in 1996, and most of the research was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, when summer activities likely looked very different than they do today. The most troubling finding of that meta-analysis indicates that income-based gaps in reading grow larger over the summer, with lower-income students showing drops and middle class students actually showing gains in test scores between spring and fall. This finding led to wide acceptance of the conclusion that summer time contributes directly to academic inequality.

While it is often cited that students lose an average of 2–3 months of reading skills during the summer, there is limited recent research that backs up this claim.

Most of the more recent research on summer learning loss has examined its prevalence in the very early grades, primarily K–2. A rigorous recent analysis of a national study of  kindergartners in 2010–11 found inconsistent results, with socioeconomic achievement gaps widening during the summer in some subject/grade combinations, but not in others. Research on older students is limited due in large part to the limitations of available data. State accountability assessments are administered only in spring and, therefore, researchers cannot isolate summer impact. We are left with very little research with which to understand who is gaining or losing ground during the summer and over time in upper elementary and middle school grades.

MAP® Growth™ assessment data gives us the ability to broaden our knowledge about summer learning loss in many ways. Because most schools administer it in the fall, winter, and spring, we have data that more precisely isolates what learning—or learning loss—is happening during the summer. Because it is taken annually by nearly 20% of K–12 US public school students in 50 states, we are able to examine trends longitudinally, with older students, and across racial and income groups.

Insights from MAP Growth

I’ve been analyzing what the MAP Growth data is telling us and will be sharing some interesting findings on Teach. Learn. Grow. over these summer months. First up, does summer learning loss continue with older elementary and middle school students? If so, at what pace?

In NWEA’s research, summer learning loss was observed in math and reading across third to eighth grade, with students losing a greater proportion of their school year gains each year as they grow older—anywhere from 20 to 50%.

The figure below shows both school-year gains and summer loss in math and reading estimated by the 2015 NWEA RIT Scale Norms Study. To avoid capturing learning that happened at the beginning of a school year prior to testing, we calculated the predicted achievement status means within each grade at week 1 (fall) and week 36 (spring) of a 36-week (180 days) school calendar. The predicted means are plotted as circles within each time point. Additionally, each panel has three within-year and two summer line segments displayed, with the change in RIT points in each time period displayed above the line.

Figure 1. Average school year gains and summer learning loss based on the 2015 MAP Growth Norms Study

Figure 1. Average school year gains and summer learning loss based on the 2015 MAP Growth Norms Study

As you can see in the graphs, summer learning loss is clearly observed in both math and reading in each summer term between third and eighth grade. On average, students show a drop of between 3 and 5 RIT points, relative to gains of 4–16 RIT points during the school year. It appears that summer learning loss is fairly stable in terms of RIT points across grade levels.

But a more sobering trend is the pace of summer learning loss, which we calculated by estimating the ratio of summer loss to school-year gains for each grade. In the summer following third grade, students lose nearly 20% of their school-year gains in reading and 27% of their school-year gains in math. By the summer after seventh grade, students lose on average 36% of their school-year gains in reading and a whopping 50% of their school-year gains in math. In other words, summer learning loss increases with age through elementary and middle school—a troubling trend that should be examined further.

It is clear from our research with MAP Growth that we have reason to be concerned about summer learning loss, and we have much more to learn. In the coming weeks, I’ll share other findings we are making as we explore summer learning loss and variability in patterns of different student populations.

Next up, does summer learning loss effect the achievement gap? Do minority students show larger drops than non-minority students? Do students in high-poverty schools show larger drops than students in low-poverty schools?

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