New Research Challenges Idea of ‘Summer Learning Loss’

New Research Challenges Idea of ‘Summer Learning Loss’

MCPS still plans pilot at two schools to offset summer regression

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In a report released Tuesday, scholars counter the decades-old theory that students -- especially minorities and those in poverty -- are more apt to lose months’ worth of knowledge each summer.

Photo via Education Next

As the Montgomery school system prepares to launch a pilot program for longer school years at two elementary schools, a new study challenges the pilot’s foundation that students from high-poverty families are more likely to regress academically in the summer months.

In a study released Tuesday by Education Next, a scholarly journal about education policy and reform, scholars counter the decades-old theory that students — especially minorities and those in poverty — are more apt to lose months’ worth of knowledge each summer.

Paul von Hippel, a professor and scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote that the study most widely used to support claims of summer learning loss, at more than 30 years old, is based on outdated test-scoring methods.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 methods indicate that achievement gaps are “unlikely to widen during summer vacations,” von Hippel said.

“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,” said von Hippel. “My colleagues and I tried to replicate …the classic results in the summer learning literature—and we failed.”

The school system last year picked Arcola and Roscoe R. Nix elementary schools in Silver Spring as the first to test a longer academic school year. More than 70% of students at the schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator the school system uses to determine students in poverty.

The pilot is set to begin July 8 and the school year will continue through June 11, 2020. Regular classes for the 2019-2020 academic year start after Labor Day. School system leaders have said they hope to expand the program to other high-poverty schools.

“The vast majority of research aligns with our thinking that summer learning loss is a real, tangible issue for our students,” school system spokesman Derek Turner said. “We’re always watching for new research, but, for now, we’ll move ahead with our plan and keep paying attention to the issue as it evolves.”

Summer learning loss 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” — a difference in performance between minority and white students — between students in high- and low-poverty schools more than tripled between kindergarten and 8th grade, with all of the growth seeming to occur during the summer.

Some newer studies found existing achievement gaps between high- and low-poverty students remained constant between kindergarten and the end of second grade, with no sign of them widening during summer months. Others suggest widening achievement gaps, but no evidence of greater skill loss over the summer at less affluent schools.

One result that remains consistent among various academic studies is learning progress slows during the summer months, von Hippel said.

“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.”

Not the first challenge to the Montgomery school system’s pilot program, Turner said school leaders are confident it will benefit students.

In February, the Washington, D.C., school system announced it was suspending its test of longer academic years, citing a lack of progress negating summer learning loss and teacher burnout.

The District invested $22.5 million in the program over three years, which added 20 school days to the academic calendar at 13 “low-performing schools,” incorporating shorter, frequent breaks during the school year, similar to Montgomery’s plan, but while D.C. ditched its plan, local school leaders said they stand behind their pilot.

Montgomery plans to invest about $1.6 million a year in the program.

Teachers at Arcola and Roscoe Nix are currently embroiled in debate with the school system over what they believe are unfair pay differences for administrators and educators at the two schools.

“We’re excited for the extended school year pilot at Arcola and Roscoe Nix and know the more structured classroom instruction kids get, the better,” Turner, the spokesman, said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at

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