Surprising New Evidence on Summer Learning Loss: New Research Findings Challenge Common Assumptions about Summer Learning Loss

By Kuhfeld, Megan | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2019 | Go to article overview

Surprising New Evidence on Summer Learning Loss: New Research Findings Challenge Common Assumptions about Summer Learning Loss


Kuhfeld, Megan, Phi Delta Kappan


In 1996, a team of scholars at the University of Missouri conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of earlier research on the extent to which students learn and/or forget academic content and skills during the summer months (Cooper et al., 1996). They found that the test scores of students from low-income backgrounds tend to drop between the spring and the fall, while the scores of middle-class and wealthy students tend to remain the same (in math) or show some improvement (in reading). A decade later, another study --in which researchers from Johns Hopkins observed a group of Baltimore students from 1st grade, in 1982, to age 22--found that differing summer experiences in the early elementary years explained most of the test-score gap between rich and poor kids in the 9th grade (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007)

Since then, it has become common knowledge among educators and the general public alike that poor and working-class students tend to experience "summer learning loss" (sometimes referred to as "summer slide" or "summer setback"). Journalists frequently refer to these research findings, and policy makers often cite them when making decisions about summer programs and the length of the school year.

But in fact, the research into summer learning loss is far from conclusive.

For at least two important reasons, the evidence deserves another look. First, the 1996 study relied mainly on data collected in the 1970s and 1980s, and the findings may not generalize to today's educational and social contexts. Second, the more recent national studies were only able to examine students' summer experiences following kindergarten and 1st grade, without addressing subsequent summers. In truth, while these early findings have fueled a great deal of concern about summer learning loss, we actually know much less about this phenomenon than is often assumed.

Further, recent research (von Hippel & Hamrock, 2019) points out flaws in the testing and scaling procedures used in much of the earlier research, including the Baltimore study. In particular, many early studies administered more difficult versions of tests in the fall than in the previous spring, confounding estimates of summer learning loss with differences in the tests themselves. Luckily, advances in testing procedures have mostly eliminated this problem.

In the last 10 years, new insights on summer learning loss in early elementary school have become available thanks to nationally representative data collected by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K), which follows one set of students who started kindergarten in 1998-99 and another who started in 2010-11. Using both of the ECLS-K studies, Paul von Hippel, Joseph Workman, and Douglas Downey (2018) found near-zero levels of growth during the summers following kindergarten and 1st grade, which they note would be "better described by a phrase like 'summer slowdown' or 'summer stagnation'" (p. 337) rather than the more common "summer loss" terminology. Additionally, the researchers did not find much evidence to support prior findings that socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequality widens during the summer.

In short, what we know about summer learning loss is more limited and contradictory than many realize, with varying findings about whether summer setback occurs at all and whether inequality widens during the summer, particularly for students in upper elementary and middle school.

A fresh look, using a new source of data

Given the limitations of our current understanding of summer learning loss, I decided to take a fresh and deeper look at the problem and test the prevailing assumptions about which students lose ground during the summer.

For this research, I analyzed data from more than 3.4 million students in all 50 states who took the NWEA MAP Growth reading and mathematics assessments between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. MAP Growth is typically administered in both the fall and spring across kindergarten to 8th grade, allowing us to gauge student progress both during the school year and over the summer. …

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