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Report Series: National Summer Learning Project
Part 2 of 8

Ready for Fall?

Near-Term Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Students’ Learning Opportunities

The first set of student outcome findings from Wallace’s National Summer Learning Project finds near-term improved student performance on math assessments and no near-term effect on reading assessments.
December 2014
A black teacher wearing a red shirt helping students with classwork, sitting at their desk
  • Author(s)
  • Jennifer Sloan McCombs, John F. Pane, Catherine H. Augustine, and Laura Zakaras
  • Publisher(s)
  • RAND Corporation
Page Count 51 pages


How we did this

Researchers studied the impact of voluntary summer learning programs led by public school districts on educational outcomes for children in low-income, urban communities. This report evaluates the near-term impact of one summer of programming as measured by reading and math tests and social-emotional skill assessments administered in the fall of 2013, shortly after the first summer of programming ended. 

Many students lose knowledge and skills over the summer. That learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. Can large-scale, voluntary summer learning programs led by public school districts improve their academic achievement and other outcomes?

With that question in mind, this report assesses initial results of the National Summer Learning Project, in which five school districts sought to roll out strong summer programming for children.  A ground-breaking randomized control study of the effort involved  more than 5,600 elementary-school students in five urban districts. Longer-term impacts are discussed in a subsequent report. 

Focus on Near-Term Impact

The children took part in two consecutive summers of programming starting in 2013, when they were rising fourth graders. The report looks at the impact on the students in the near-term—that is, during the fall after their first summer of programming. 

Key insights include:

  • Programs improved students’ mathematics achievement. Children selected to take part in the summer learning programs scored higher on the fall math assessment administered for the study than those who were not selected. The impact on participants’ math skills equaled 17 to 21 percent of the average increase in math performance that students of this age and grade level make in an average year.  
  • Programs did not make a difference in reading skills. The fall assessment of reading comprehension and vocabulary skills did not show differences between the two groups of students.
  • Strong attendance and more hours of academic instruction were linked to better mathematics outcomes. The more days that students attended and the more time they spent on task, the greater their advantage in math compared with those not selected for the program.
  • Instructional quality, teacher grade-level experience, and classroom orderliness affected reading achievement. Students in orderly classrooms where reading teachers provided high-quality instruction and had recently taught 3rd or 4th grade tended to perform better on the fall reading assessment than other children who took part in the program.

There are multiple potential reasons for why reading assessments didn’t show differences between students who took part in the programs and those who did not, including;

  1.  Improving reading skills can be particularly difficult
  2. The length of the program or the number of hours dedicated to teaching ELA might not have been enough to improve reading skills.
  3. The quality of the instruction might have been inadequate.
  4.  The instruments used to measure reading skills could have failed to pick up differences between the two groups of students.

Ultimately, the findings point to a number of factors that are related to positive outcomes. They  include attendance, instructional time, behavior, and relevant teacher experience.

The National Summer Learning Project was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation. 

Children who regularly attended the summer programs for two years saw meaningful benefits in both math and reading. Read the details in Learning from Summer: Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Urban Youth.   


Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students and therefore likely contributes to the achievement gap between these students and their higher-income peers.

Key Takeaways

  • A randomized controlled trial examined the impact of school district summer learning programs on rising fourth graders. 
  • Researchers found that in the near term, the programs improved students’  math achievement.
  • Three factors are associated with improved students’ performance in English Language Arts: orderliness in the classroom, high-quality instruction, and teachers who had recently taught the same age group as the summer students.

Materials & Downloads

What We Don't Know

  • What was the impact on other student outcomes measures, such as grades, attendance, behavior, and state tests?

  • Did students experience “summer slide” in learning, hold steady, or advance in their mathematics or reading skills during the summer?

  • What were the impacts on individual district programs?

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