University of Iowa

ISRP Study Results Show Summer Reading Programs Prevent Learning Loss

Teacher and students
Students working with a teacher in Council Bluffs during the Intensive Summer Reading Program Study in the summer of 2016.

PDF iconClick here for the full "Report of the 2016 Intensive Summer Reading Program (ISRP) Study"

ISRP study report cover
The Iowa Reading Research Center’s Intensive Summer Reading Program (ISRP) found the programs helped students who were struggling with reading maintain their reading skills during the summer months. However, under the conditions in which they were implemented, the three types of summer reading programs did not accelerate reading improvement on average, according to the report detailing the study’s results.

The study found participating schools also faced challenges such as finding enough qualified teachers and literacy coaches in the summer months and sporadic student attendance.

“This study was the first of its kind, so Iowa stands to learn a lot from the results and be able to better plan for the challenges schools will face in providing summer reading programs,” said Deborah Reed, principal investigator of the study and director of the Iowa Reading Research Center. The center was created by the Iowa Legislature in 2012 and is overseen by the Iowa Department of Education in partnership with the University of Iowa College of Education.

By May 2018, every Iowa school district must offer a summer reading program for students who are not proficient in reading at the end of third grade as determined by multiple assessments. The requirement is part of an early literacy law that also requires schools to identify and intervene with students in kindergarten through third grade who are struggling to read.

ISRP classroom in Fort Dodge

An educator addresses students in Fort Dodge during the Intensive Summer Reading Program study in 2016.

There were 43 school districts and one community organization participating in the center’s ISRP study. A map of Iowa with those districts highlighted is available at this link. The goal of the study, commissioned by the Branstad-Reynolds Administration and funded by a mix of private and public sources, was to identify the characteristics of more effective summer reading programs. The study applied the requirements in the law to the programs in 120 classrooms statewide, implemented between May 31 and August 11. Under those requirements, schools must provide at least 70 hours of evidence-based instruction in small classes (15 students or fewer) and monitor students’ reading progress.

Participating schools were randomly assigned to use one of three approaches to literacy instruction: a specified computer-based program, a specified print-based program, and a “business-as-usual” approach in which the schools determined their own literacy programs.

On average, the three approaches were equally effective at preventing learning loss that is typically associated with summer break, but did not lead to statistically significant growth on tests of students’ reading ability. Results also showed achievement gaps in reading performance among minority students, students whose native language is not English, and students who receive special education services.

“Summer school is another opportunity to provide help to students who need it most, so it is important to continue looking for ways to design high-quality summer reading instruction,” Reed said.

Other study findings showed:


Many participating school districts struggled to hire enough certified and experienced teachers for the summer reading programs because those teachers often had other time commitments. Classes may have been taught by newly graduated teachers, educators who had been out of the classroom for more than a decade, and long-term substitute teachers.

Student Attendance

Attendance during the Intensive Summer Reading Program study was optional, which may have contributed to the high rate of absences and attrition. Only 49% (1,111 of 2,235) of students invited to attend summer reading programs attended them. Of those students, 876 were present at the end of the programs. Attrition was greater among female students, students from low-income backgrounds, and black and Hispanic students. Attendance rates could not be linked to lack of transportation because they were no higher for districts that provided busing or when the summer reading programs were held within walking distance.


The median cost of providing summer reading programs statewide was estimated between $9.25 and $13.82 million. This was based on offering summer school to the 9,000 third graders not meeting proficiency standards. Because not all of the students will be required or choose to attend, the estimates may be considered the maximum expense.

The IRRC wishes to thank all of the administrators, teachers, literacy coaches, and students who participated across Iowa!

ISRP Study Funding

ISRP logo
This study was made possible by the generous donations of the following organizations and individuals:
  • Richard O. Jacobson Foundation
  • Iowa Department of Education
  • Iowa Reading Research Center
  • MidAmerican Energy Foundation
  • Iowa West Foundation
  • Patty and Jim Cownie Charitable Fund
  • William C. Knapp Charitable Foundation
  • Iowa State University
  • University of Iowa
  • Gregory Abel
  • Wells Enterprises, Inc.
  • University of Northern Iowa Foundation
  • ITC Midwest, LLC
  • Bankers Trust Company
  • Buena Vista University
  • Central College
  • Dordt College
  • Morningside College