UT Professor: ‘Summer Slide’ may not be as much of a problem as schools think

FILE - Child, student in a classroom_440066

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A UT Austin professor says summer learning loss may not be as much of a concern as parents and teachers have previously thought.

“Those claims are based on a single study from the 1980s,” said Paul von Hippel of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Paul von Hippel says in a research project, he examined the study used in the 1980s that showed summer learning loss in students in Baltimore, Maryland. According to von Hippel, the Beginning School Study is still widely cited in the belief that summer break creates reading achievement gaps for students, although, he says the study is based upon outdated test-scoring methods.

Through his research, the professor says it’s not safe to say that students lose math and reading skills or comprehension over the summer. 

“We basically couldn’t replicate these findings,” von Hippel said, noting that more modern test results don’t show kids losing knowledge over the summer. He says only one, MAPS testing, does. According to von Hippel, MAPS testing generally shows kids losing two to three months of what they’ve learned when they take off for summer break.

Questioning those results, von Hippel said, “Like, kids are basically going backwards as fast as they were going forward during the school year, which seems radical to me.”

AISD Librarian Christina Nelson, however, says it’s not far-fetched that students would lose some skills over summer break. The district encourages summer learning and reading programs. Kids are also encouraged to use every day math while they’re not in school.

“You’re going to feel dusty,” Nelson said of students who don’t read over the summer. “It’s not going to come as smooth; it’s not going to come as natural. You’re going to struggle. And, so, we’re trying to avoid that for our students.”

Von Hippel says it’s never a bad idea to keep learning while on break. However, he warns parents not to set expectations too high when counting on summer programs to keep their students ahead of the curve.

“I think our ideas of how important summer learning loss is to achievement gaps is somewhat exaggerated, and for that reason, we’re often disappointed when these summer reading programs, summer learning programs come in with rather small effects,” von Hippel said. “But, we shouldn’t be dissapointed. Summer learning loss is kind of a small thing, and we should expect small effects from the programs that try to combat it.”

Von Hippel says his research also found that most of the determining factors of how far ahead or behind students will be in school are determined by the time they enter kindergarten. He says the summer is a good time for those who’ve always been behind to play catch-up with their peers.

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