There is evidence from research conducted mainly in the United States of America that pupils’ reading proficiency declines during the summer holidays and that the decline is greater among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Evidence from the US and elsewhere also suggests that the gap expands over the course of primary schooling (i.e., there is a progressive achievement gap). The evidence for this is mixed in Ireland (Martin, 1979; Eivers, Shiel & Shortt, 2005; Weir, 2001).
A small opportunistic study of this phenomenon in Irish schools, focusing on the break between First and Second class, was undertaken by the Centre. In 2007/2008, over 1,600 pupils in First class in 39 schools took the Drumcondra Primary Reading Test-Revised (DPRT-R) as a follow-up to the administration of the screening component of the Drumcondra Test of Early Literacy (DTEL). Approximately half of all participating pupils were in schools in the School Support Programme (SSP) under DEIS. In the first week of September 2008, the principals of all 39 schools were sent a letter in which it was pointed out that summer learning loss had not been investigated in Ireland and that their school’s involvement in the administration of the DPRT-R so late in the previous school year presented an opportunity, albeit on a limited scale, to do so. The principals were invited to participate in a re-administration of the DPRT-R in mid-September. One principal declined to participate in the study.
While over 1,600 pupils were tested in total, only those that had test scores on both occasions were retained in the analysis (678 pupils in the 21 SSP schools, and 566 in the 18 non-SSP schools). While all pupils took Form A of the reading test on the first occasion, about half were given an alternate form of the test in the second administration. A simple comparison between the results on both occasions and a comparison of patterns in SSP and other schools revealed some surprising results. Contrary to expectations, significant gains rather than losses between spring and autumn were observed. Furthermore, students in SSP schools showed larger average gains between spring and autumn that those in non-SSP schools. However, it is worth noting that the test scores of SSP students were well below the national norm for spring (47.6) and autumn (53.0), while those of their non-SSP counterparts were slightly above the norm on both occasions. Several explanations for the findings were considered. Regression to the mean (the tendency for pupils with low scores on the first occasion to score more highly on a second occasion) was investigated but found not to be a major factor. The SSP group may have benefited from a practice effect as their gains were somewhat lower when they took an alternate form of the test on the second occasion than when they took the same form twice. Consideration was also given to whether some features of the SSP programme itself could have helped to explain the larger gain among the SSP group. For example, the SSP provides for out-of-school learning opportunities (including during summer). Unfortunately, there are no data on the extent of these activities in the sampled schools. It is also possible that, through the Home/School/Community Liaison Scheme, the work of coordinators with parents has enabled them to better support their children’s out-of-school learning, including during the summer period. The issue of summer learning loss continues to feature on the Centre’s work programme, and it will continue to seek opportunities to collect data that may shed further light on the issue.