Skip Navigation
archived information

Early Learners Learning Loss
June 2020


What does the research say about early learners' learning loss that has occurred or may occur during COVID-19?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Augustine, C. H., McCombs, J. S., Pane, J. F., Schwartz, H. L., Schweig, J., McEachin, A., et al. (2016). Learning from summer: Effects of voluntary summer learning programs on low-income urban youth. Santa Monica, CA: RAND. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The National Summer Learning Project, launched by the Wallace Foundation in 2011, includes an assessment of the effectiveness of voluntary, district-led summer learning programs offered at no cost to low-income, urban elementary students. The study, conducted by RAND, uses a randomized controlled trial and other analytic methods to assess the effects of district-led programs on academic achievement, social-emotional competencies, and behavior over the near and long term. All students in the study were in the third grade as of spring 2013 and enrolled in a public school in one of five urban districts: Boston; Dallas; Duval County, Florida; Pittsburgh; or Rochester, New York. The study follows these students from third to seventh grade; this report describes outcomes through fifth grade. The primary focus is on academic outcomes but students' social-emotional outcomes are also examined, as well as behavior and attendance during the school year. Among the key findings are that students with high attendance in one summer benefited in mathematics and that these benefits persisted through the following spring; students with high attendance in the second summer benefited in mathematics and language arts and in terms of social-emotional outcomes; and that high levels of academic time on task led to benefits that persisted in both mathematics and language arts."

Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement (EdWorkingPaper No. 20-226). Providence, RI: Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"With 55 million students in the United States out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, education systems are scrambling to meet the needs of schools and families, including planning how best to approach instruction in the fall given students may be farther behind than in a typical year. Yet, education leaders have little data on how much learning has been impacted by school closures. While the COVID-19 learning interruptions are unprecedented in modern times, existing research on the impacts of missing school (due to absenteeism, regular summer breaks, and school closures) on learning can nonetheless inform projections of potential learning loss due to the pandemic. In this study, we produce a series of projections of COVID-19-related learning loss and its potential effect on test scores in the 2020-21 school year based on (a) estimates from prior literature and (b) analyses of typical summer learning patterns of five million students. Under these projections, students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math. However, we estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading. Thus, in preparing for fall 2020, educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction."

Kuhfeld, M., & Tarasawa, B. (2020). The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. Portland, OR: NWEA. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"To provide preliminary estimates of the potential impacts of the extended pause of academic instruction during the coronavirus crisis, we leverage research on summer loss and use a national sample of over five million students in grades 3-8 who took MAP® Growth™ assessments in 2017-2018. We examined how the observed typical average growth trajectory by grade for students who completed a standard length school year compares to projections under two scenarios for the closures: a COVID-19 slide, in which students showed patterns of academic setbacks typical of summers throughout an extended closure and COVID-19 slowdown, in which students maintained the same level of academic achievement they had when schools were closed (modeled for simplicity as March 15, with school resuming in fall)."

Other References

Anderson, J. (2020, March 25). Learning loss and the coronavirus: How what we know about summer learning loss can guide educators, districts, and parents during current school closures. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from

From the Website:
"With many schools closed around the country due to the coronavirus, educators and parents may have growing concerns about how long students can go without formal instruction. Jennifer McCombs, a senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, has long studied the effects of summer break on learning—particularly for at-risk students from low-income families or students performing below grade level. In this episode of the EdCast, McCombs discusses how what we know from summer learning loss might guide educators, districts, and parents as they set forth on learning when school is closed."

Barnum,M. (2020, March 24). The coronavirus double whammy: School closures, economic downturn could derail student learning, research shows. Chalkbeat. Retrieved from

From the Website:
"The new coronavirus has closed schools for weeks, and in some places for the rest of the academic year. Thousands of parents have already lost their jobs. And many believe a recession is on the way. That's a cocktail with the potential for harmful, long-lasting effects on students, research suggests. Studies of student absences, summer learning loss, and lengthy school closures show that losing time in school sets students back academically. Research on the last recession found the resulting drastic cuts in school spending lowered students' test scores and college attendance rates. And other research has shown that families' financial stress affects how well students do in school. Together, these findings paint a grim picture of what the latest crisis could mean for students—and indicates that many will not be able to easily shake off its effects. But it also hints at opportunities for policymakers to cushion the blow."

Hill, P. (2020, April 20). What post-Katrina New Orleans can teach schools about addressing COVID learning losses. Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) Retrieved from

From the Website:
"This year, the "summer" break for school children will be six months long. Some learning loss is likely, but it will vary, depending on kids' opportunities to learn during the coronavirus shutdown and on individual differences—for example, a taste for recreational reading. How can schools figure out where individual kids are? If the kids in any classroom have different degrees of learning loss, how can schools start everyone in the first place and quickly get everyone ready for grade-level material? These questions can't be fully answered until kids come back. But we can anticipate some of the answers by looking at the last long-time disruption in schooling—in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans schools closed abruptly in early August 2005. Though a few schools located on high ground were able to start again in early 2006, the majority of children weren't back in New Orleans schools until the following school year or later. All returning students had suffered hurricane-related trauma. Some had gone to school for a few months in Texas or other parts of Louisiana, but most were out of school until they returned to New Orleans."

Lafortune, J. (2020, April 2). How COVID-19 closures may disrupt student learning. Retrieved from

From the Website:
"School is technically still in session, but distance learning is unlikely to fully compensate for lost time. Assuming schools remain closed through the school year, how detrimental will this be to student learning? First, learning time matters. In studies measuring how students performed based on differences in when they took exams, even a few days can have a large impact. We also know that missing school reduces academic performance and that chronic absenteeism is particularly damaging, tied to a variety of outcomes such as achievement, socio-emotional development, and dropout. However, the impact of missing school under normal, predictable conditions is less relevant to our current situation. Disruption from weather-related closures may be a better gauge for how COVID-19 closures could impact students. Roughly 1.2 million K-12 students in California were affected by emergency closures last year, mainly due to wildfires and other weather-related events. According to data from Maryland, schools fare worse on state exams in years with more weather-related closures, despite these closures accounting for only a week of instruction on average. However, when we consider the impact of individual student absences versus school-wide closures, the effects of closures are negligible. Educators may find it easier to compensate for school-wide closures by adjusting or delaying lesson plans. While this suggests a reason for optimism, mitigating entire months of lost instructional time will require more than reorganizing lesson plans. Additional insights come from the long documented phenomenon known as "summer learning loss": the typical student loses about one month's worth of learning over the course of a summer. Importantly, summer losses tend to be larger for disadvantaged students who have access to fewer resources and learning opportunities while away from school. This means that achievement gaps tend to grow during the summer, reversing gains achieved during the year. This is worrisome: if schools remain closed for the remainder of the school year, we may face an even larger "spring and summer" loss."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Early childhood, Early learners, Learning loss, Summer, COVID-19, (Slide OR melt)

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.