More time in classroom raises student test scores

Published: Sunday, March 18 2012 12:04 a.m. MDT

In 2009 the school adopted an extended-learning format, adding 300 hours instructional time through a combination of a longer school day and year. The results were dramatic. In one year they raised their proficiency rate on state exams from a meager 12 percent to 60 percent of all students. Today their students currently exceed the state average in grade eight mathematics. Edwards is becoming a national model for successfully closing the achievement gap, one of the most persistent problems facing American educators.

A growing body of research provides strong evidence of a positive correlation between test scores and time in class. Dave Marcotte compared schools outcomes on state assessments in years where there were frequent school cancellations due to winter weather and of the same schools in relatively mild winters. He found that in winters with average (17 inches) snowfall the share of students testing proficient in mathematics is about 1 percent to 2 percent lower than in winters with little to no snow. He noted that for each day a school is closed, the school should expect for any given student's score to drop by one-third to one-half a percentage point.

Marcotte's work is particularly interesting because it addresses one of the biggest problems for researchers interested in measuring the impact of the length of a school year: confounding variables. "Because longer school years require greater resources, comparing a district with a long school year to one with a shorter year historically often amounted to comparing a rich school district to a poor one," said Marcotte. In these cases it is hard to say whether improved performance is a result of the longer school year or the socio-economic status of students. Because the severity of the winter is outside the control of the school, the "research design address the concern that schools with a longer school year differ from those with a shorter year," he said.

Cost of extension

Although evidence is mounting that expanding the school year will lead to learning gains, the cost to tax-payers is cause for concern. According to Marcotte, the best cost calculations come from a recent study in Minnesota where government policy analysts estimated that increasing the number of instructional days from 175 to 200 would cost about $1,000 per student.

The cost benefit analysis of extending the school year is also complicated by the fact that differences in cost exist across schools and states. "Utilities, transportation, and teacher summer-labor markets vary widely across geographic areas, and all affect the cost of extending the school year," said Marcotte. "While the benefits of extending the school year may exceed the costs in some states or school districts, they may not in others."

The costs are not just economic, there are political implications too. "Teachers have come to expect time off in the summer and have been among the most vocal opponents of extending school years in several locations," said Marcotte.

Teachers aren't the only ones accustomed to long summers. "Students and families have camps, vacations, and work schedules set up around summer vacation," said Marcotte. The Save our Summers movement, a coalition of parents and education professionals, advocates for traditional school calendars.

Save our summers argues that traditional summers are crucial for "outside-the-classroom childhood and family learning experiences," according to their website. Save our Summers also is concerned that extending the school year will have a negative impact on tourism and its accompanying tax revenue.

Affordable reform

Cost is the most common criticism of extended-time learning. However, there are cost-effective ways of implementing this reform, according to the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston-based non-profit that advocates for extended school calendars. "Schools that have expanded learning time have not done so because they stumbled on to unlimited resources," said Chris Gabrieli, a Boston-based education reformer and a leading advocate of an extended school calendar. "On the contrary … the schools that have adopted extended time have done so because they believe the schedule is essential for their mission, especially for highly disadvantaged students who are already behind and don't have academic support beyond the school," he said.

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