Summer Learning Loss –
Fact or Fiction?
Most of us have heard of the so-called summer learning loss, sometimes referred to as the ‘summer slide.’ For the past 30 years, educators have relied heavily on the outcome of a research project that attempted to measure learning loss over summers and throughout the course of a student’s educational years.
Back in the early 1980s, these researchers came to the conclusion that students’ achievement scores declined over the summer months. To this day, their research remains the go-to industry standard.
Fast forward to now. We definitely continue to hear proponents endorsing the idea of an increasing learning gap and harping on its message. However, researchers are now questioning the validity of a research project occurring so many years ago.
If you look more closely at modern research on early learning, early-childhood scholars believe nearly all learning gaps form before the age of five, possibly even the age of three.
According to their research, gaps observed in ninth grade students are not a result of falling further and further behind. Instead, the gaps were already present. And, these gaps are almost the same size as they were when those children started kindergarten. Additionally, summer vacation does not seem to have a real impact on these learning gaps in any way.
Here is another major event to consider: Educators and scholars are also now beginning to see the impact on learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent studies seem almost counterintuitive, especially if you are a firm believer in learning gaps.
The results actually show more progress in reading and math during school closures and virtual learning than was expected. The analysis found scores actually rose during the first half of the 2020-21 school year. Even more, the amount of progress made was similar to (if not higher than) what would be expected in a non-pandemic year.
This should be enough to make anyone pause and look more closely at their long-standing belief in learning loss and summer slide.
Is the industry standard research flawed?
As for myself, I am highly skeptical of any research project done nearly 30 years ago. This is for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the methodology of testing has changed dramatically over the past there decades. If the industry standard research would have been conducted just a few years later than it was, the results would have most likely been radically different. This is because it wasn’t until 1985 when the first standardized tests became computational.
With the popularity of computers on the rise, more modern scoring methods followed. Computational test scoring has been come to known as the item response theory.
Over the years, computational testing has started to offer another great advantage in data collection validity: fixed form vs. adaptive testing.
Fixed form means test questions are set before testing and all students will receive the exact same questions. Adaptive testing is just the opposite. Questions are not fixed. Instead, with every right or wrong answer, the test adjusts the level of difficulty accordingly. This also means students will not all be assessed on the same questions. It is true, many tests are still given in a fixed format. As an educator, I put more faith in those that are adaptive.
In addition to all of this, researchers and scholars now look more closely at influencers which might impact the validity of testing results in different ways. Factors such as implicit bias, test bias, cultural bias, you name the bias.
Opponents thought the 1982 Beginning School Study was flawed back then. Now we have so many more reasons to question its validity. Not to mention, research groups have tried to replicate the findings of these old test results. Turns out they generally cannot. At least not yet.
Despite our country’s addiction to standardized testing, many educators will tell you a test should not be the end all be all of any sweeping conclusion in learning. This is because the most important skills simply can’t be quantified. There are so many skills a standardized test could never accurately measure.
What the heck are soft skills?
The most important skills, in my humble opinion, that standardized testing could never account for are that of problem solving and critical thinking. Never assume a high test score translates directly to superior problem solving skills! Testing in and of itself is a skill set which some are more gifted at than others.
Problem solving skills and critical thinking are often referred to as ‘soft skills.’
Soft skills include things like language abilities, listening skills, personal habits, emotional empathy, time management, collaboration skills and leadership traits.
Can we quantify soft skills? No one has figured it out yet. This is because they’re intangible and subjective. They are interpersonal and they are situational. They’re tied to emotions and to human connection. Unlike function-specific hard skills, there aren’t cause-and-effect outcomes directly linkable to soft skills. Ironically, these are all the skills employers say they value most.
We have gained so much perspective over the last three decades on childhood development and on testing methodology. Why then do we continue to rely so heavily on the results of standardized testing?
Suggestions for Summer Learning
Seems I have lead us down the deep rabbit hole of standardized testing. This leads us to the bigger question: What exactly should students be focused on over summer vacation, if anything?
There does exist some educational undertakings which should be explored over those long, hot months.
Tune in next week for Part II – Some suggestions for learning activities over summer vacation.
Do you have thoughts or ideas about summer learning? Do you have a suggestion for another blog topic? Please send me an email with your ideas and experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Read More: STANDARDIZED TESTING:
Who is actually benefitting?
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