School & District Management

How Does Summer Learning Really Affect Students’ Academic Achievement?

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 10, 2019 3 min read
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Differences in summer enrichment between poor and wealthy students may not contribute much to long-term achievement gaps, according to a new analysis.

Researcher Paul von Hippel set out to replicate the landmark 1982 Beginning School Study, which tracked more than 800 Baltimore schoolchildren from kindergarten through grade 8. That study found reading achievement gaps between high- and low-poverty schools widened each summer, ultimately tripling the size of their reading gaps from the start of primary school to the end of middle school in 1990.

However, as a new article in Education Next details, those results disappeared when von Hippel tried to replicate the study using newer tests, which use different formats and control for the difficulty of test items in ways that the earlier tests did not, adapting the difficulty of test questions as students move through the assessment.

In national data from the 2010 federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, there were no differences in the rates of reading progress for students in low- and high-poverty schools, in summer or during the school years from kindergarten through grade 2. Rather, the gap in reading performance seen at the start of kindergarten stayed fairly consistent throughout early elementary grades. Likewise, an analysis of data from the Northwest Evaluation Association’s adaptive Measures of Academic Progress showed that reading achievement gaps between low- and high-poverty schools in in 15 states widened by about a third from kindergarten through grade 8, but it grew at the same rates in summer and the during the school year.

“I’m not sure why the tests disagree. I haven’t met anybody else who does, and it’s disquieting. It makes you wonder how much we really know about ... why test score gaps grow,” von Hippel said. “But I think we need to stop saying that two-thirds of the 8th grade achievement gap is due to summer vacation. It sure looked that way in the Beginning School study 30 years ago, but I don’t know a single modern data set that tells that story.”

Summer Focus

So does this mean superintendents should cancel their summer school programs? Not at all, von Hippel said. For one thing, some studies show students do learn more slowly during the summer. That could create an opportunity for students who have fallen behind to catch up, if a summer program helps them learn faster than their peers.

“If this hypothetical superintendent sees the December achievement gaps are huge, they might think that just installing any old summer program is certainly better than nothing,” von Hippel said. “But it’s probably a harder problem: You may need to take into account how long the summer program is; how well coordinated its curriculum is to what’s happening during the school year; how well attended it is. It’s not a simple problem.”

More generally, expanded learning time has been associated with better achievement. In separate research, von Hippel and his colleagues found that schools that attempt to relieve summer learning loss by more evenly spacing their 180 school days across the year are not associated with narrowed achievement gaps, However, schools that expanded their traditional school calendar to 210 days—often including some summer school or Saturdays—were associated with better achievement.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.