School & District Management

Lost Learning Time Compounds Over Summers. Students Are Taking an Extra Hit Right Now

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 10, 2020 2 min read
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More than half of students consistently experience summer learning loss throughout their primary grades, finds a large new national longitudinal study, with compounding summer deficits leaching away on average nearly 40 percent of students’ yearly progress.

Allison Atteberry of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Andrew McEachin of the RAND Corp., co-authors of the new study in the American Educational Research Journal, analyzed the progress of nearly 18 million students in 7,500 districts who participated in the math or English/language arts tests from NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress from 2008 to 2016.

As the charts below show, the researchers found students’ math test scores improved during each school year—though by smaller amounts as they moved up from grade to grade. For example, in math, the average student improved by 24 points during 1st grade, but only by 6.5 points during 8th grade. The average learning losses each summer stayed more consistent from grade to grade, but still varied significantly. For example, the average student lost a quarter to a third of the progress he had made in math each grade during the following summer. But within that average, some students lost more than 16 test-score points in math during the summer, while other students gained nearly 7 test-score points:

“Mean summer learning loss patterns—those that most researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are familiar with—do not characterize most students’ summer experiences very well,” explained Atteberry and McEachin. “Some students maintain their school-year learning rate throughout the summer, while others can lose almost as much ground as they had gained in the preceding school year. We show that even if all the inequality in school-year learning rates could be entirely eliminated, students would still end up with very different achievement levels due to [summer learning loss] alone.”

For some students, these compounding losses over summers explained more than 30 percent of the difference between them and their classmates by grade 5. Prior research has shown that while students in poverty and those from disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups are more likely to experience summer learning loss than white or wealthy students are, these demographic factors only explain about 4 percent of the difference in students’ summer learning loss over time. School closures in the wake of the coronavirus have made it more urgent for schools to identify the students most vulnerable to summer learning loss. A separate study released earlier this spring and also based on NWEA data found that the so-called “COVID slide” could cause students to lose as much as 30 percent of their annual progress in reading and half to all of their progress in math, without intervention.

Districts are still deciding how to measure and pinpoint how much ground they will have to make up with students when schools finally reopen this fall. But the researchers suggested that education leaders should consider how new scheduling structures intended to reduce the number of students on campus, such as moving to year-round calendars, could affect which children remain out of the classroom, and for how long.

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