Is summer learning loss real?

Contact | Jackie Kerstetter:, Education Next

Is summer learning loss real?
Recent tests do not show widening achievement gaps during summer vacation

Thursday, May 30, 2019—It’s that time of year again—we’ll soon hear warnings about summer learning loss, which disproportionately affects low-income students and is responsible for an astounding two-thirds of the achievement gap by the end of eighth grade. These stories are remarkable. But the most remarkable thing about them is that they may not be true.

In a new article for Education Next, Paul von Hippel of the University of Texas, Austin, reexamines the evidence around summer learning loss. He finds that the study most widely used to support claims of summer learning loss, at more than thirty years old, is based on outdated test-scoring methods. More recent and better-scored tests indicate that achievement gaps are unlikely to widen during students’ summer vacations.

Summer learning loss as we understand it 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 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. According to von Hippel, however, those results don’t stand the test of time.

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

Among the key findings:

Classic summer learning loss finding was based on outdated test-scoring methods. The Beginning Schools Study relied on a version of the California Achievement Test developed prior to the advent of modern scoring methods based on item response theory. When the test switched to this new scoring method in 1985, it found that achievement gaps do not expand across grade levels—in fact, as students got older, gaps shrank.

More recent national data show persistent, rather than widening, gaps. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found that for a nationally representative sample of students entering school in 2010, 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.

Other new tests show slow gap widening, but not in summer. Data from the Measures of Academic Progress tests, which are given in more than 7,800 schools and districts across the United States, show some growth in reading achievement gaps between first and eighth grade, but no evidence of greater skill loss over the summer among students at less affluent schools.

But even newer tests disagree. According to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study tests, children lose, on average, just two weeks of reading and math skills their first summer vacation. During their second summer vacation, they lose two weeks of reading again, and they actually gain a little in math. According to the Measures of Academic Progress tests, though, summer learning loss is much more serious. On average, children lose about a month of reading and math skills during their first summer vacation. And during their second summer vacation, they lose three full months of skills in reading and math.

One result, however, does replicate across studies. “Nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school years,” says Von Hippel. “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.”

To receive an embargoed copy of “Is Summer Learning Loss Real? How I lost faith in one of education research’s classic results” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, June 4 on and will appear in the Fall 2019 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 28, 2019.

About the Author: Paul von Hippel is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College