If you have school-age kids, you may have heard of the “summer slide,” a phenomenon in which students lose some of the learning they achieved in the previous school year over the summer break.

The good news is that the summer slide is often overstated. In fact, evidence is decidedly mixed on whether it really exists, and education researchers say that summer is an opportunity. Whether or not kids lose learning during the summer, they very rarely gain it—but the hot days out of school can be a golden window for kids who are struggling to catch up, especially in the context of pandemic learning loss.

“COVID definitely exacerbated differences we see in achievement by income and race, so making good use of the summer is all the more important now,” says Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher in education at the RAND Corporation. But, Augustine says, it’s also important to give young people—no matter their academic standing—balance. “It’s an equity issue,” she says. “You don’t want low-income kids or kids of color to not experience the same fun that other kids are experiencing in the summer.”

Private summer programs often use the fear of the summer slide to sell their services, says Paul von Hippel, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. In reality, it’s not clear whether the summer slide exists at all, at least on a widespread basis. Some early studies suggested that kids lose weeks or months of learning progress in the summer, with low-income students or those from racial minority backgrounds suffering the most. But those findings don’t replicate across studies. In fact, von Hippel and his colleagues have found that even modern investigations return vastly different results when it comes to whether kids lose academic gains in the summer.

In a recent paper published in the journal Sociological Science, the researchers find that different standardized tests can give wildly different answers on this question. Scores from the widely used NWEA assessment show that kids forget much of what they’ve learned, up to three months’ worth, during the summer. But studies based on another common standardized test, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies–Kindergarten series, show basically no loss. A third test, the Renaissance Learning assessment, shows mild losses in reading and big losses in mathematics. Meanwhile results about who loses the most learning, whether by race or socioeconomic status or grade level, are all over the place.

Despite popular concerns that Black students might lose more learning over the summer than white students, David Quinn, an education researcher at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues are currently analyzing data that suggest the opposite—that Black kids lag behind white ones during the school year, perhaps because of discrimination they experience within school, whereas they lose less learning during the summer, perhaps because they tend to engage in more formal summer programs.*

It might seem simple to test kids’ knowledge over time, but there are a lot of methodological issues, von Hippel says. Standardized tests are run by private entities, so researchers don’t often have insight into the specific questions asked or skills tested. Kids don’t typically take tests on the last and first days of school, and students in different districts tend to get tested at different times. There are even variations in how researchers measure variables such as socioeconomic status across studies, which makes comparison difficult. “It’s kind of mystifying,” von Hippel says. “There are a couple of things that are consistent in the literature. Unfortunately, they’re kind of obvious. One is that kids don’t learn reading and math skills during summer vacation as they do during the school year. So, they either go sideways or lose skills.”

For kids who are behind, research suggests that summer programs do help. A recent analysis of studies of summer math programs in the journal Review of Educational Research showed that formal programs improved math skills in kids who attended versus those who didn’t. “For keeping up math skills, participating in a formal summer program that incorporates some math, whether via hands-on, STEM-related activities or more traditional formats such as tutoring, is certainly one promising approach,” says study researcher Kathleen Lynch, an educational psychologist at the University of Connecticut. “At the same time, there are many less formal ways that parents and caregivers can support kids’ math skills and foster a love of math during the summer. Talking about math in everyday activities, such as sports, shopping and cooking, and playing board games, card games and puzzles that involve math can all be interesting and enjoyable to kids while also reinforcing math concepts.”

For summer learning, there is far less research on at-home programs than there is on formal ones, Quinn says. But much of what has been done suggests that at-home learning does help kids maintain and gain skills, just at a slower rate than formal programs. Quinn and Harvard University literacy researcher James Kim have found that summer reading programs, even home programs, boost reading skills in all kids, and the benefits are greatest for those from low-income families.

To avoid punishing kids for struggling academically, Augustine supports programs that mix academics with opportunities for play, exercise and enrichment activities. The availability of high-quality programs differs based on school district and state funding, she says. And COVID recovery funding has helped support programs around the country but is set to expire in 2024. “Our research has found that kids benefit when they attend these kinds of programs for consecutive summers,” Augustine says. “One summer will definitely help, but two summers are better, so finding a way to continue that funding would be ideal.”

Parents can also consider pushing the private camps that many rely on for summer childcare to set up scholarship funds to allow more low-income students to attend, Augustine says. Private efforts won’t solve every problem, she says, but they can help close the access gap. “There is certainly a lot of unmet need,” she says.

*Editor’s Note (7/13/23): This paragraph was edited after posting to correct the description of research comparing learning loss among Black and white students during the school year and the summer.