Research Review

NWEA: Certain Groups Lose More Ground When School is Out, Illustrating Importance of Summer Programs

Summer Is Vital to Helping Students with Disabilities, English Learners, and Rural Students Catch Up, Report Says

An NWEA study of current research examining K–8 student progress during a typical school year and over the summer reveals that historically underserved groups suffer most when school is out for summer break, emphasizing the importance of summer learning programs in overcoming inequitable achievement gaps, the nonprofit said in a news release.

NWEA’s report, released today, analyzed research based on MAP Growth assessment data; that research shows that students with disabilities, English learners, and rural students fall behind during summer at a greater rate than their grade-level peers; yet during the school year, the three groups show learning gains equal to or greater than their peers, NWEA said.

The summer learning loss leads to persistent achievement gaps for students with disabilities, English learners, and rural students, the nonprofit said.

“Our research analysis revealed reasons for both optimism and concern. While the findings disrupt some long-held deficit-based thinking about some of these student groups, they also demonstrate the disproportionate impact that learning interruptions have on their achievement in the long-term, making high quality summer learning opportunities and other interventions critical,” said NWEA Vice President of Policy and Advocacy Lindsay Dworkin.

“We have long known the impact of the summer slide on student learning; however, this data gives us a deeper look into just how critical high-quality summer opportunities are for many of our underserved students,” said Deborah Delisle, CEO of All4Ed, formerly the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Highlights From NWEA’s Report

The NWEA study focused on three recent research studies, which it summarized in a blog post detailing its report:

Rural Students: In a study of K–8 students nationwide, rural students entered kindergarten with higher achievement scores in math and reading than their peers from urban areas, but by the end of third grade the rural students were consistently outperformed by non-rural students across all grades. Rural students’s math and reading achievement levels rose at slightly faster rates than other students during the school year, but they lose more ground almost every summer, effectively eliminating the advantage achieved during the school year. NWEA posted a synopsis of the research on its website.

Students with Disabilities: In a study of K–4 students nationwide, students with disabilities entered kindergarten behind their peers in reading and math but then made gains at similar or faster rates during some school years. However, students with disabilities lose more ground every summer, which contributes to widening disparities in achievement.

“The findings indicate students with disabilities would benefit from early interventions that address the gap that occurs before students even start kindergarten and summer learning loss across the grades,” NWEA said in its summary of the research.

English Learners: The third research study analyzed achievement and growth for K–4 English learners, finding that ELs had lower assessment scores than non-EL students through elementary school but they also recorded academic growth at rates similar to or faster than non-EL students. The students identified as needing EL services tended to lose more ground over the summer than students who were native English speakers or multilingual students who were English learners initially but not consistently through grade 4.

“This new study underscores both the urgency and need to invest in interventions that support the academic recovery of English learners. Even before the pandemic, multilingual learners lost more ground than their peers during the summer when they were out of school,” said Eric Rodriguez at Latino civil rights advocacy nonprofit UnidosUS. “After the last two years of interrupted learning for all students, it is more crucial than ever to target significant resources to support retaining and accelerating academic progress and learning for English learners during the summer. Summer support should include bilingual programming that combines academic and enrichment activities staffed with specialists to provide specific language development support and appropriate materials for English learners.”

Recommendations for Helping Students Catch Up

NWEA said its researchers will continue studying learning patterns in hopes that new data from the current school year “will show a narrowing of gaps and more equitable learning conditions for all students.”

“With the school year soon coming to an end, we can all look to summer as the perfect time to provide additional quality learning opportunities for students impacted by the pandemic. To ensure these opportunities are engaging and successful, states need actionable research on effective strategies that leverage afterschool, summer learning, and community partners,” said Paolo DeMaria, NASBE President and CEO. “This summer learning research brief can inform state boards about what works to support students in high-quality summer programs that sustain positive gains made during the school year. High quality summer programs coupled with relevant ongoing evaluation will help unlock the tools we need to reduce summer learning loss and continue to accelerate student learning so each and every student thrives.”

NWEA noted that “simply offering a summer program doesn’t guarantee it will work.”

It cited a RAND Corporation study examining five urban districts’ summer programs that found that the only students who benefitted significantly with solid gains in math and English language arts were the students with high attendance.

“This suggests that the level of attendance (and engagement) in summer programs is an ongoing challenge, and that education leaders should look at ways to encourage and support consistent and high student attendance, including eliminating barriers that prevent students from showing up,” NWEA wrote. “Suggestions include making programs easily accessible, engaging, aligned to school-year programs, and staffed by strong teachers.”

About the Author

Kristal Kuykendall is editor, 1105 Media Education Group. She can be reached at [email protected].