Summer Break - A Win or Loss for Learning?


The Importance of Learning in the Summer

With school out for the summer, students are embracing a break from teachers, homework, and other school-related responsibilities. However, this break may come at a cost. Namely, losing some of the progress they made during the school year. While all students may experience some loss of learning over summer break, learning loss may impact disadvantaged students the most.

In the simplest terms, summer learning loss refers to students’ loss of academic skills and knowledge over the summer while they are not attending school. Yet, summer learning loss is a bit more complicated than students forgetting multiplication tables over the break.  A truer picture of summer learning loss considers student demographic variables, learning achievement gaps developed prior to summer break, and the change in these achievement gaps--or loss of learning--that occurs throughout the summer.

In examining summer learning loss through this lens, research from Burkam and colleagues (2004), Downey, von Hippel, and Broh (2004), Reardon (2013), point to a link between summer learning loss and social background characteristics, specifically socioeconomic status (SES), and highlight that lower-SES students are the most impacted as summer learning widens the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups. Unfortunately, the effects of summer learning opportunities may have a lasting impact on students’ educational foundation and eventual postsecondary prospects. In examining the long-term educational consequences of summer learning differences by family SES, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson (2007) found that the achievement gap at 9th grade between high-SES and low-SES students was rooted in differential summer learning over the elementary years. Additionally, early summer learning differences were also found to substantially account for differences in high school achievement such as high school track placement, high school completion, and four-year college attendance.

A review of 39 studies on summer learning loss representing approximately 40,000 students showed that achievement test scores declined over the summer and that, on average, the reading proficiency levels of students from lower-SES families declined over the summer. The loss of learning equaled about one month when accounting for grade-level with neither gender nor race appearing to be an influencing factor. Another study analyzing the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study data found that lower-SES children fell about 2.5 months behind higher-SES students during the summer months between kindergarten and first grade. While the study acknowledged that learning gaps also occurred during the school year, gaps grew more slowly when school was in session.

As we’ve shown, summer learning loss is by no means a new phenomenon in educational research. In fact, it is typically near the top of the list of reasons students from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to fall behind their peers and never catch up. However, the discussion and evidence on summer learning loss is more nuanced than many in the education research world have typically believed.

A recent article from Paul T. von Hippel in EducationNext summarized two new studies presenting data on the pervasiveness and magnitude of summer learning loss. Essentially, these studies find that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, tend to lose a bit in the summer months and that the gaps in achievement we find between advantaged and disadvantaged students already exist by the time kids show up for kindergarten. Whether the extent of summer learning loss is as dire as some studies have shown may be questionable, but what is not in question is the gap in learning that exists is occurring in between students from differing SES backgrounds, in the summer or otherwise.

Figure 1 below shows the differences in MAP achievement levels for students of different SES backgrounds in Missouri, tracking the achievement levels who were in third grade during the 2014-15 school year. As shown, there is a persistent gap in the percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced on both the English Language Arts and Math MAP exams.

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This begs the question of what we can do to close these gaps. The answer may be in summer learning. Simple access to books over the summer may provide a much needed answer to the question of closing learning gaps and may be as effective as summer school in providing a boost. Results of a summer book distribution study, where randomly selected low-SES families received a 12-book distribution for three consecutive summers, indicated positive effects on the engagement of voluntary reading and higher reading achievement in children from the most disadvantaged families. Another study found reading four to five books over the summer prevented a decline in reading-achievement scores for children of all SES backgrounds. Ease of access was the most important factor in getting children to read more books.

Overall, summer programs, including summer school, may provide the best opportunity to aid struggling students and close learning gaps. Proponents of summer programming, such as Heins (1987) and Berlinger (2009), suggest that summer programs may be an effective strategy for boosting the learning of disadvantaged students, and the negative effect of many outside factors may be moderated by such programs. Despite these endorsements, many students do not take advantage, or are not able to take advantage of these opportunities. Summer school programs often struggle to reach students in need as simply getting kids to school presents challenges for low-SES families. Free, online programs like the Missouri Summer Math Challenge offered by DESE, provide additional options to keep students’ skills sharpened, but computer access for low-SES families may also be limited. Coming full circle, summer programs can be effective strategies for closing the learning gap, but easing access to these opportunities must be a priority.

DESE’s Missouri Summer Math Challenge begins June 17 and is open to all students. More information on the program can be found here.


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