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A Flexible Learning Year in Northfield: Some Initial Thoughts

A new school board member considers one aspect of the proposed calendar change for the Northfield Public Schools: more instructional days before standardized testing dates.

As soon as I join the Northfield school board on January 14, 2013, the board will be presented with a proposal to adopt what is being called “a more balanced” school calendar. You can learn more about the proposal in the Northfield News, and in Dr. Richardson’s video presentation on Northfield Patch.

As I understand it, the proposal before the Northfield school board calls for starting the school year in August; ending the school year before Memorial Day; and for one-week breaks in the fall (coinciding with the traditional “MEA” break), winter, and spring (coinciding with the Carleton and St. Olaf College spring break).  The suggested benefits of the proposed calendar modifications would be to provide more instructional days before high-stakes standardized testing dates, and to balance the first and second semesters (meaning that first semester final exams would fall before instead of after winter break). The mid-August start time would coincide with the start of fall sports practice, and with the start of the MNSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system) academic year, which will make it easier for students participating in the PSEO (post-secondary enrollment option) program at MNSCU schools. Under this proposal, the length of summer vacation would remain the same (approximately twelve weeks), and the total number of instructional days (174) would remain the same.

Provisions for a “flexible learning year” were adopted into Minnesota statute in 1974. The statute allows districts “to evaluate, plan and employ the use of flexible learning year programs,” including year-round school. The current statute is 124D.12. The statute requires negotiations with staff and public meetings with parents and community members before implementation of a flexible learning year plan (124D.124). Plans are subject to approval by the state education commissioner. After three years, districts must submit an application to the commissioner to continue on a flexible learning year.

Public meetings on the proposed calendar in Northfield will be held in mid-January. I am still awaiting a complete presentation on the proposed calendar, and I’m reserving judgment until the proper time, but I have done some preliminary research of my own on the issue of rearranging the school calendar to provide more instructional days before standardized testing dates. It should be remembered that this is only one aspect of the proposed calendar. It should also be remembered that I am not a social scientist, and my conclusions and questions are those of a layperson.

A 2010 study of Minnesota achievement test scores indicates that an increased number of instructional days before standardized testing dates does have a positive impact on student performance, but that the quality of instruction, regardless of the number of instructional days, is more important. The authors caution that “more instructional time can be used to meet goals, but...more time is neither a perfect substitute for, nor the same thing as, better use of time.”

The same authors point out that some school districts “game accountability systems by rearranging school calendars so that students have more time in school prior to the exam, even as the overall length of the school year remains constant.”  This sounds similar to what Northfield proposes.

In 2010, a consortium of twenty-five public school districts in southwestern Minnesota received permission to institute a flexible learning year similar to the one proposed in Northfield. The flexible learning year consortium in southwestern Minnesota was the subject of a program on Twin Cities Public Television in January 2012, which indicated a positive response to the initiative.

AYP index rate data, based on MCA scores, indicates modest consortium-wide gains in reading proficiency scores since the flexible learning year was implemented in 2010 (source: Consortium FLY Application 2013-2016 PowerPoint, attached) :

Consortium-Wide AYP Index Rate (Reading)

2009    80.67%

2010    79.75%

2011    81.73%

2012    82.46% 

Math scores rose from 2009 to 2010, dropped in 2011 (as did scores state-wide, due to the introduction of the new MCA-III math test), and rebounded again in 2012. GRAD writing scores have remained flat (91.0% in both 2009 and 2012).

It is worth noting that not all schools in the consortium posted gains over the three-years of the program. In the Windom Public School district, for example, scores in both reading and math have declined or flattened out since 2009.  In 2011, the Edgerton superintendent said: “One of the things we were hoping to achieve was seeing an improvement in scores with the additional time...There was some, but there were a number of districts in the southwest corner of the state where this probably wasn’t achieved to the level we wanted to see.”

Edgerton did, however, post gains in 2012. For me, this raises the question of whether the flexible calendar is responsible for the gains, or if the gains were the result of some other intervention on the part of the schools.

It should also be noted that proficiency rates have also risen in districts that are not on a flexible learning year system. Northfield, Lakeville, and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan have all posted modest gains since 2009. I think it could be argued that it is difficult to isolate the effect of the flexible learning year from other factors influencing increased student achievement, such as changes in the quality and effectiveness of instruction, and increased familiarity with the tests.

Leaving aside my own philosophical concerns about the influence of standardized testing on our educational system, my main question is: Is it possible to isolate the effects of a modified calendar on student achievement scores, and show that significant improvements are directly attributable to the calendar, rather than to other interventions to improve student achievement?

For a longer version of this blog post, see my Learning Curve blog.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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