Do K-12 Students Unlearn Material Over Summer Break?

Parents want their children to excel academically, which is why they could worry that summer break — a time in which many students sleep in, vacation, play video games, or lounge around the pool instead of studying — could cause kids to backslide and forget what they learned during the school year. Those parents might be on to something. The phenomenon of students unlearning academic material over summer break has an official name: summer learning loss.

What is Summer Learning Loss?

When people discuss summer learning loss, they are usually referring to the phenomenon popularized by the widely-cited results of a 1996 meta-analysis. Researchers reviewed 39 educational studies and found that students’ achievement test scores declined after breaks from school. They concluded that over summer break students lost at least one school-year month’s worth of learning, backsliding in both math and reading. The higher grade level a student was in, the more learning they lost.

These studies about summer learning loss also found that students from lower income households lost more knowledge over the summer than students from middle class households. Researchers believed this was due to lower income students having less opportunity to engage with academic material over the summer. The National Summer Learning Association says that children from underserved communities lose up to three months of learning during the summer, which they call “summer slide.”

Is Summer Learning Loss Real?

In recent years, multiple educators have argued that summer learning loss isn’t as serious as past researchers have made it out to be or that it might not exist at all. More recent studies have found that summer learning loss occurs, but not to the shocking extent many people claim.

After closely examining summer learning loss studies, Paul T. von Hippell argued that the findings of the studies examined in the widely-cited 1996 meta-analysis cannot be replicated now because of changes in achievement testing. He concluded that we don’t really know if summer learning loss is a problem or not, saying it “could be serious, or it could be trivial.”

Keeping Students Mentally Stimulated All Summer

Most parents probably don’t want to wait for new research to find out if their children are losing valuable knowledge over summer break. While you don’t have to enroll your children in a year-round school or assign them homework over break to prevent summer slide, it’s a good idea to keep them mentally stimulated.

The Georgia Department of Education provides recommendations on how much students should read over the summer based on their grade levels. The Get Georgia Reading initiative shares summer resources online. Many Georgia public libraries, school districts, and cities have summer programming in which students can attend events, sign up to read and win prizes, or engage with reading and learning in other ways over the summer. These opportunities are fun and educational, so they will benefit students whether or not summer learning loss is a major problem.


Written by: Jay Summer

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