Concerns about students losing ground academically during summer break go back at least a century, with early evidence suggesting that summer contributed to large disparities in students’ outcomes. This narrative spurred growth in a variety of summer programs and interventions aimed at stemming “summer learning loss.” However, the recent article “Is summer learning loss real?” by Paul von Hippel calls into question these long held beliefs. Von Hippel asks whether summer learning loss (SLL) is even a real phenomenon, citing differences in findings across studies about the magnitude of SLL in the early grades and the degree to which test score gaps between low-income and high-income students grow during the summer.
In this blog post, we’ll try to help you make sense of what is known about learning loss in the summer by describing the recent research, explaining how it relates to our prior understanding of SLL research, and presenting the questions that remain unanswered about students’ summer learning.
An evolving body of research
As Paul von Hippel, a prominent SLL scholar, highlights in his article, early SLL research is marred by concerns that students’ large “losses” in test scores over the summer were driven by how researchers measured achievement and did not reflect real patterns of students’ learning. In response to these concerns, most of our current understanding of SLL patterns relies on two more recent data sources, each with their own advantages and disadvantages: the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011) and NWEA’s interim assessment, MAP® Growth™.
ECLS-K:2011 is a nationally representative survey of students who started kindergarten in 2010–11 and contains a broad set of information about each child. The survey, however, only covers the summers after kindergarten and first grade for a single cohort of students. Prior studies using ECLS-K:2011 show that student learning slows down but does not drop over the summers after kindergarten and first grade. The results also indicate that summer may play a role in widening socioeconomic achievement gaps but does not play a large role in widening racial/ethnic achievement disparities, like Black-White gaps.
Another group of studies uses MAP Growth data, which include millions of students’ anonymous test scores and cover each summer between kindergarten and eighth grade. However, these data are not nationally representative and lack student-level socioeconomic information—an important consideration since the resources available to children in the summers may impact learning loss.
In the last year, researchers published two new studies using MAP Growth data to document student learning patterns during the summer. The first study, “School’s out: The role of summers in understanding achievement disparities,” was recently published in the American Educational Research Journal and examined the magnitude and variability in summer learning loss across grades 1–8. This study found that the average student lost 17–34% of the prior year’s learning gains during summer break, as well as that students who lose ground in one summer are more likely to also lose ground in subsequent summers.
The second study, “When does inequality grow? School, summer, and achievement gaps,” was recently published in Educational Researcher and examined the degree to which racial/ethnic achievement gaps widened during summer break. Following groups of students across grades K–8, the study found that Black-White achievement gaps widen during the school year and shrink slightly during the summer, and that Asian students generally pull ahead of White students during the summer. However, the results also showed that summer loss varies greatly, and that race/ethnicity and school-level poverty do not explain much of the variance in summer learning patterns. So, we still have only a limited understanding of the mechanisms that explain SLL.
What we understand about summer learning loss
Where does this leave us in terms of understanding SLL? There are some differences between the findings of studies using these different data sources:
- ECLS-K:2011 research indicates student learning flattens during the summers after kindergarten and first grade, while research using MAP Growth data shows more substantial losses in both math and reading.
- An important caveat in interpreting differences is that MAP Growth studies examine growth for kids in grades K–8, but it is not possible to compare findings for grades other than K–1 using ECLS-K:2011.
On the other hand, some consistent themes and persistent questions are emerging:
- Gaps between students attending low- and high-poverty schools do not appear to widen during the summer. (See “Summer learning loss: Does it widen the achievement gap?” and “Is summer learning loss real?”)
- Black-White achievement gaps hold steady or narrow during the summer (see “Do test score gaps grow before, during, or between the school years?” and “When does inequality grow? School, summer, and achievement gaps”), though results can be sensitive to the metric used (see “Black-White summer learning gaps: Interpreting the variability of estimates across representations”).
- School year gains are negatively correlated with SLL patterns. (See “When does inequality grow? School, summer, and achievement gaps” and “Inequality in reading and math skills forms mainly before kindergarten.”)
- Learning rates are more variable during the summer than during the school year. (See “School’s out: The role of summers in understanding achievement disparities,” “When does inequality grow? School, summer, and achievement gaps,” and “Inequality in reading and math skills forms mainly before kindergarten.”)
- We cannot yet explain much of the variability in SLL patterns. (See “Rethinking summer slide: The more you gain, the more you lose” and “Inequality in reading and math skills forms mainly before kindergarten.”)
It is clear across recent studies that summer is a particularly variable time for students. What is less clear is whether and how summer learning affects achievement gaps, and which student, school, and community factors account for variation in summer learning loss.
To better understand summer learning loss—and to better support learning for all students throughout the year—more research is needed on how students spend time during their summers and what resources are available from schools and communities to support students and families during out-of-school periods.
If you’re interested in learning more about effective summer programs, we encourage you to read the following:
Andrew McEachin, director of the Collaborative for Student Growth at NWEA, coauthored this post.