Is summer learning loss real? | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin
Illustration of young schoolchildren for Education Next by Chris Payne
(Education Next illustration by Chris Payne)

 

Recent tests do not show widening achievement gaps during summer vacation, says the LBJ School's Paul von Hippel

Thursday, May 30, 2019 — It's that time of year again — we'll soon hear warnings about summer learning loss, which disproportionately affects low-income students and is responsible for an astounding two-thirds of the achievement gap by the end of eighth grade. These stories are remarkable. But the most remarkable thing about them is that they may not be true.

LBJ Professor Paul von Hippel

In a new article for Education Next, Paul von Hippel of the LBJ School at The University of Texas at Austin reexamines the evidence around summer learning loss. He finds that the study most widely used to support claims of summer learning loss, at more than 30 years old, is based on outdated test-scoring methods. More recent and better-scored tests indicate that achievement gaps are unlikely to widen during students’ summer vacations.

Summer learning loss as we understand it was most famously identified in the Beginning School Study, which tracked the achievement of 838 students in the Baltimore City Public Schools from 1982 until 1990. The data showed that the reading achievement gap between students in high- and low-poverty schools more than tripled between kindergarten and eighth grade, with all of the growth seeming to occur during the summer. According to von Hippel, however, those results don't stand the test of time.

"I'm no longer sure that the average child loses months of skills each year, and I doubt that summer learning loss contributes much to the achievement gap," says von Hippel. "My colleagues and I tried to replicate…the classic results in the summer learning literature — and we failed."


"I think we need to think harder about making summer learning program mandatory or irresistible to kids who are behind."
—Professor Paul von Hippel

Among the key findings:

  • Classic summer learning loss finding was based on outdated test-scoring methods. The Beginning Schools Study relied on a version of the California Achievement Test developed prior to the advent of modern scoring methods based on item response theory. When the test switched to this new scoring method in 1985, it found that achievement gaps do not expand across grade levels—in fact, as students got older, gaps shrank.
  • More recent national data show persistent, rather than widening, gaps. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found that for a nationally representative sample of students entering school in 2010, the reading achievement gap between high- and low-poverty schools remained constant between kindergarten and the end of second grade with no sign of the gap widening during summer.
  • Other new tests show slow gap widening, but not in summer. Data from the Measures of Academic Progress tests, which are given in more than 7,800 schools and districts across the United States, show some growth in reading achievement gaps between first and eighth grade, but no evidence of greater skill loss over the summer among students at less affluent schools.
  • But even newer tests disagree. According to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study tests, children lose, on average, just two weeks of reading and math skills their first summer vacation. During their second summer vacation, they lose two weeks of reading again, and they actually gain a little in math. According to the Measures of Academic Progress tests, though, summer learning loss is much more serious. On average, children lose about a month of reading and math skills during their first summer vacation. And during their second summer vacation, they lose three full months of skills in reading and math.

One result, however, does replicate across studies. "Nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school years," says von Hippel. "That means that every summer offers children who are behind a chance to catch up. In other words, even if gaps don’t grow much during summer vacations, summer vacations still offer a chance to shrink them. I think we need to think harder about making summer learning program mandatory or irresistible to kids who are behind."


More from Paul von Hippel:

About the Author: Paul von Hippel is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit ducationnext.org.

About the LBJ School: The LBJ School of Public Affairs, one of the nation's top 10 public affairs schools, offers master’s degrees in domestic and global affairs, training students to tackle the most complex policy problems of our day through innovative approaches. Find @thelbjschool on social media and learn more at lbj.utexas.edu.