Thursday, January 17, 2008

The New School Calendar Is Testing Students' Patience This Week

A little over a year ago, I lamented the fact that the new later start to the Texas school year, which began last fall, would delay first-semester final exams until after Christmas; yes, I'll use the un-PC term here. (For what it's worth, I also dislike the later start because the state government has no business sticking its grubby paws into what was, and should still be, an issue of local control, but that's another post altogether.) And now, as I sit at home on a rare break because my students are mired in these same exams, I see that the problems I predicted are, by and large, happening; nobody is very happy with having exams this week:
In years past, not studying over the winter break may not have been a big deal. But this year is different.

Because of a later school starting date, Aug. 27, students didn't begin taking their first-semester exams until this week. So, as Jordan and thousands of other high school students across Texas returned to class this month, teachers greeted them not with new material but with previous semester exams.

A two-week hiatus before exams causes some students enormous stress.

"It's just easy to lose focus," said Charles Douglas Jr., a 17-year-old senior at North Mesquite High School.

He said his teachers urged him and his classmates to study and review notes over the break, but he was too busy spending time with his family.

The first week back, Charles had tests that covered what he learned over the past six weeks. And this week, he had comprehensive semester exams.

"Even the teachers were complaining," he said. "To retain all this information and then use it is a lot to ask of some teenagers."
As the article points out, most schools used last week as a review week, and the students are now being tested on material that they may not have seen for at least three weeks. It just doesn't make sense.

There are some ways around this (besides the long-term solution of voting out the legislators who caved in to the desires of the entertainment industry and took a valuable chunk of local control away from the districts). One would be to do what a couple of high schools have already done: Use a trimester calendar. They have five periods of slightly over an hour apiece that meet every day, and many classes that would normally take an entire year to complete can be done in four six weeks' time. (The rest of the high schools in my district are on an eight-period "A/B" block, where four of the eight classes meet every other day for an hour and a half apiece.) Perhaps the best argument for trimesters would be the fact that their major exams are given in the last full week before Thanksgiving, the end of February, and the last week of the school year, so fact that the third six-weeks is divided up by Christmas break (yes, I said it again) becomes much less of an issue.

But trimesters may not be for everybody. One of the downsides is that, with only five periods, it's hard to get all of the required classes in for students with multiple electives. Our schools start so early (7:30 a.m.) that it's nearly impossible to do a "zero hour" class, which would normally occur before the school day (6:15 a.m. class, anyone?). So perhaps Highland Park's idea would work for some people. It's a somewhat radical idea: Unbalanced semesters!
Highland Park ISD decided to finish first-semester exams in December despite the new law. Under its current calendar, the first semester has 80 days and the second has 95. But once mandatory testing days, such as for TAKS, are subtracted, the semesters are nearly even, said Helen Williams, director of communications.
Some school officials interviewed for the article seemed to recoil at this idea, but I give kudos to HP for thinking outside the proverbial box. Who says that the semesters have to be equal, after all? Plano is considering the method, and, if it seems to work, it may well be copied by others.

Granted, I have a dog in this fight. As a private music teacher whose high-schoolers have solo and ensemble in three weeks and two days (but who's counting?), I haven't seen a whole lot of practicing going on this week at the semester schools (while most of the trimester kids improved by leaps and bounds this week). But I'd be against having exams this week even if it didn't affect me personally at all.

It will be interesting to see how the grades compare on exams taken this year vs. those taken before Christmas a year ago...and you'd better believe that teachers and principals will be tracking this stuff. And let's hope that, down the road, voters will have the courage to elect people who actually have the best interests of education at heart.

But here's one rescheduled test I can agree with: One of the other issues connected with the later start is that it moved all the TAKS testing two weeks later. But people forgot to consider that the Tuesday of TAKS week suddenly coincided with the March 4 presidential primary. Since TAKS and voting would be taking place at some of the same schools, the state's education commissioner wisely opted to move all testing away from Tuesday that week. Not only does that avoid the distraction of having voters and test-takers in close proximity, but it also guarantees that teachers won't be caught up in long hours on testing day and will thus have the ability to cast their own ballots on that day.


Gary P. said...

I don't have a particular opinion yet on semesters vs trimesters, but I am in favor of the later start date.

I've always thought the earlier start dates were pushed by the all-powerful football coaches because I'm guessing that allows them to start their summer practices earlier. Left to their own, it wouldn't be long before school would be starting in late July. Give kids their summers back.

Back in my day (old fogey alert), school started the Tuesday after Labor Day and ended the Friday before Memorial Day. Of course, we didn't get a week off for Thanksgiving, a week for East..., uh, I mean "Spring Break," two weeks off scattered through the year for teacher in-service days, and all the other days off during the year. There's no reason schools here couldn't do the same, but they choose instead to give a bunch of days off during the school year instead of the summer.

Kev said...

The way it's set up now, the school year has to be 180 instructional days long, with seven extra days for in-services, etc.

I pretty much agree that a Labor Day-Memorial Day school year would be ideal, but 180 days can't be fit in there without completely eliminating Thanksgiving and Spring Break (and when I was a kid, we had at least the two days for Thanksgiving and a weeklong Spring Break). It's not likely that anyone is going to go to bat for Thanksgiving Day classes or anything. Not only that, but a school year with no holidays at all except for Christmas would cause burnout in students and teachers alike.

And that would leave no days at all for the in-services, and I bet there's some rule that says that they can't all be before the beginning of the year or after the end.

The "unbalanced semester" idea is intriguing to me; I have to admit that I never thought of that idea before reading the article.