In examining more recent and better-scored tests, researchers found little evidence the achievement gap expands in the summer, as many believe. 

New study: Summer learning slide is not as steep as we thought

new study questions the belief and the dire warnings that the achievement gap between rich and poor kids widens over the summer and can only be narrowed by summer learning opportunities. 

Yes, students may get a bit rusty when they’re out of school for 10 or 11 weeks, but the achievement gap, as measured by the difference in test scores between advantaged and disadvantaged students, doesn’t grow, according to Paul von Hippel, an associate professor  at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin

Believing that summer learning losses likely occurred but wondering about the evidentiary underpinnings, von Hippel sought to validate the claim that summer slides during elementary school accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap found in ninth grade reading between low-income children and middle-income peers. He and his colleagues could not support the claim, saying that it relied on a 30-year-study that just doesn’t hold up today because of its outdated test-scoring methods. 

“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 in ninth grade,” he says.

In examining more recent and better-scored tests, von Hippel found scant indication that the gap expanded in the summer. For example, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study showed 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.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, von Hippel says his findings suggest the achievement gap is something that kids bring to school rather than something caused by schools and will not be easily remedied by schools. His research underscores the increasing recognition of the critical link between a child’s first five years and later academic performance.

“I don’t want to say schools can’t close the gaps, but most schools have a limited effect on achievement gaps,” von Hippel says. “The gaps seem to open early in life. So, the earlier you start to whittle away at them, the better shape you are in. If you look at where inequality comes from, you have to prioritize ages zero to five. That is not to say that every preschool program is successful, but that’s clearly where the most potential is. “

Von Hippel doesn’t oppose summer learning opportunities, explaining that even if gaps don’t grow while school is out, summer vacations still offer a chance to shrink them. “I am basically supportive of those programs,” he says.

“I don’t want to be the guy who says you should let your kids watch TV all summer. These summer programs are a good idea; they are an opportunity for kids who are behind to catch up.”

Among the older research von Hippel examined was that of Karl Alexander, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University and editor of “The Summer Slide: What We Know and Can Do About Summer Learning Loss.”

In a telephone interview discussing von Hippel’s findings, Alexander said, “Paul doesn’t believe the gap increases appreciably over the summer months in the early years, but the achievement gap is there, whether it increases or doesn’t. I am not a silver bullet person. We ought to try multiple approaches for kids who are not at grade level and try to constructively fill in the gaps in children’s learning opportunities when they are not in school. High-quality summer experiences can help children catch up and keep up.”

Neither researcher believes a short program over a single summer is likely to produce major improvements. “We have to hold reasonable expectations that it might take several summers to take even a bite out of the achievement gap,” says von Hippel, “and we need to do something to make these programs mandatory or irresistible to the kids who need them the most. It’s like trying to find that cereal kids will eat and is also good for them.”

Paul von Hippel studies evidence-based policy, educational inequality and the relationship between schooling, health and obesity. He is an expert on research design and missing data, and he is a three-time winner of best article awards from the education and methodology sections of the American Sociological Association.

Summer school remains a tough sell to many students and families. A revamped program rolled out last year by Atlanta Public Schools failed to draw the expected crowds. The APS “Power Up” program emphasized project-based learning and enrichment activities to shake off the reputation of summer school as a punishment and grind. 

APS expected to serve twice the number of students who showed up, according to a review of district documents by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Vanessa McCray through a public records request. The lower turnout forced APS to eliminate 9 percent of the staff it had hired to run the program, or 76.5 teachers and other positions. 

“Although the attendance was disappointing, did it have a positive effect on the children who attended? Are there plans to improve attendance next year? I wouldn't give up on a summer learning program just because the first year didn't work out quite as intended,” says von Hippel.

“There is this middle ground between summer school perceived as punitive and summer camp perceived as fun,” he says. “Get into that middle ground and you can motivate more kids to go.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.