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Learning Loss
April 2020


What do we know about student learning loss that has or will 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."

Hart, C. M., Berger, D., Jacob, B., Loeb, S., & Hill, M. (2019). Online learning, offline outcomes: Online course taking and high school student performance. AERA Open, 5(1), 1–17. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This article uses fixed effects models to estimate differences in contemporaneous and downstream academic outcomes for students who take courses virtually and face-to-face—both for initial attempts and for credit recovery. We find that while contemporaneous outcomes are positive for virtual students in both settings, downstream outcomes vary by attempt type. For first-time course takers, virtual course taking is associated with decreases in the likelihood of taking and passing follow-on courses and in graduation readiness (based on a proxy measure). For credit recovery students, virtual course taking is associated with an increased likelihood of taking and passing follow-on courses and being in line for graduation. Supplemental analyses suggest that selection on unobservables would have to be substantial to render these results null."

Hua, D. M., Davison, C. B., & Kaja, S. (2017). Stakeholder response to virtual learning days in public school districts. CTE Journal, 5(1), 20–33. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this study is to investigate how virtual learning days have impacted students, parents, teachers, and school administrators. In areas where inclement weather results in school cancellations, virtual learning days provide an alternative that allows for continued instruction on those days. The Indiana Department of Education has established a policy that sets requirements for what can be considered an approved virtual learning day. This study surveyed superintendents throughout Indiana to determine the impact virtual learning days have had on their stakeholders. The survey found that the stakeholders would rather use virtual learning days than have to make up the lost instruction due to school cancellations. Survey respondents also noted beneficial changes to teacher pedagogy."

Kuhfeld, M., & Soland, J. (2020). The learning curve: Revisiting the assumption of linear growth across the school year. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-214). Providence, RI: Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Important educational policy decisions, like whether to shorten or extend the school year, often require accurate estimates of how much students learn during the year. Yet, related research relies on a mostly untested assumption: that growth in achievement is linear throughout the entire school year. We examine this assumption using a data set containing math and reading test scores for over seven million students in kindergarten through 8th grade across the fall, winter, and spring of the 2016-17 school year. Our results indicate that assuming linear within-year growth is often not justified, particularly in reading. Implications for investments in extending the school year, summer learning loss, and racial/ethnic achievement gaps are discussed."

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 Document:
"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)."

Lindley, S., Giles, R. M., & Tunks, K. (2016). Summer reading lists: Research and recommendations. Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 4(1), 37–45.

From the Abstract:
"Decades of research have focused on the impact of summer learning loss and effective tools in stemming the flow of knowledge lost during summer break. While reading lists have become a standard practice for addressing students' needs to maintain learning levels over the summer months, very little research has been conducted on the book lists themselves. This study examined the books chosen for the summer reading lists for rising eighth graders in a single district. Several variables, including reading level, word count, interest level, author gender, category, and publication date were investigated. The findings suggest that the reading lists are quite varied, possibly as a result of each school's purpose or area of focus when compiling their individual lists. Recommendations for creating quality book lists for any grade level are provided."

McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., Schwartz, H. L., Bodilly, S. J., McInnis, B., Lichter, D. S., & Cross, A. B. (2011). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children's learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Despite long-term and ongoing efforts to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students, low-income students continue to perform at considerably lower levels than their higher-income peers in reading and mathematics. Research has shown that students' skills and knowledge often deteriorate during the summer months, with low-income students facing the largest losses. Instruction during the summer has the potential to stop these losses and propel students toward higher achievement. A review of the literature on summer learning loss and summer learning programs, coupled with data from ongoing programs offered by districts and private providers across the United States, demonstrates the potential of summer programs to improve achievement as well as the challenges in creating and maintaining such programs. School districts and summer programming providers can benefit from the existing research and lessons learned by other programs in terms of developing strategies to maximize program effectiveness and quality, student participation, and strategic partnerships and funding. Recommendations for providers and policymakers address ways to mitigate barriers by capitalizing on a range of funding sources, engaging in long-term planning to ensure adequate attendance and hiring, and demonstrating positive student outcomes."

Quinn, D., & Polikoff, M. (2017). Summer learning loss: What is it, and what can we do about it. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from

From the Document:
"Students return to school this fall, many of them - perhaps especially those from historically disadvantaged student groups - will be starting the academic year with achievement levels lower than where they were at the beginning of summer break. This phenomenon - sometimes referred to as summer learning loss, summer setback, or summer slide - has been of interest to education researchers going back as far as 1906.[1] We review what is known about summer loss and offer suggestions for districts and states looking to combat the problem."

Schwartz, H. L., Ahmed, F., Leschitz, J. T., Uzicanin, A. M., & Uscher-Pines, L. (2020). Opportunities and challenges in using online learning to maintain continuity of instruction in K–12 schools in emergencies. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"BACKGROUND: Distance learning provides a way to continue instruction in emergencies and can support social distancing. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, prolonged school closures can occur with little warning. Lessons learned from prior prolonged school closures can inform much-needed planning for future ones. In the 2017 hurricane season, more than 1,000 schools in the United States experienced closures lasting 10 or more days. Yet, despite the rapid expansion of online instruction, little is known about schools’ use of it in public health and other emergencies.

Methods: In 2017-2018, we conducted 13 focus groups and 11 interviews with school practitioners to identify promising practices, barriers, and facilitators for distance learning in emergencies.

Results: We found few examples of use of distance learning during emergency school closures in 2017. While there are significant barriers to offering distance learning in an emergency, schools that already offer online learning prior to an emergency are best equipped to continue instruction during closures for some types of emergencies.

Conclusions: Additional efforts could enhance preparedness for distance learning in K–12 schools in the framework of all-hazards preparedness."

Tull, S., Dabner, N., & Ayebi-Arthur, K. (2017). Social media and e-learning in response to seismic events: Resilient practices. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 21(1), 63–76.

From the Abstract:
"The motivation to adopt innovative communication and e-learning practices in education settings can be stimulated by events such as natural disasters. Education institutions in the Pacific Rim cannot avoid the likelihood of natural disasters that could close one or more buildings on a campus and affect their ability to continue current educational practices. For the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the impetus to innovate was a series of seismic events in 2010 and 2011. This paper presents findings from studies that identified resilient practices in this organisation, which was a "late adopter" of e-learning. The findings indicate that the combined use of social media and e-learning to support teaching, learning, communication, and related organisational practices fosters resilience for students, staff, and organisations in times of crises. The recommendations presented are relevant for all educational organisations that could be affected by similar events."

Zweig, J., Stafford, E., Clements, M., & Pazzaglia, A. M. (2015). Professional experiences of online teachers in Wisconsin: Results from a survey about training and challenges (REL 2016–110). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest.

From the Abstract:
"REL Midwest, in partnership with the Midwest Virtual Education Research Alliance, analyzed the results of a survey administered to Wisconsin Virtual School teachers about the training in which they participated related to online instruction, the challenges they encounter while teaching online, and the type of training they thought would help them address those challenges. REL Midwest researchers and Virtual Education Research Alliance members collaborated to develop the survey based on items from the Going Virtual! survey (Dawley et al., 2010; Rice & Dawley, 2007; Rice et al., 2008). Wisconsin Virtual School administered the survey to its 54 teachers, and 49 (91 percent) responded to the survey. The responses of the 48 teachers who indicated that they taught an online course during the 2013/14 or 2014/15 school year were analyzed for the report. Results indicate that all Wisconsin Virtual School teachers reported participating in training or professional development related to online instruction and that more teachers reported participating in training that occurred while teaching online than prior to teaching online or during preservice education. The teachers most frequently reported challenges related to students' perseverance and engagement and indicated that they preferred unstructured professional development to structured professional development to help them address those challenges. Further research is needed to determine what types of professional development and training are most effective in improving teaching practice, especially related to student engagement and perseverance."


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.