In short, the impact of lost instructional time depends on the particular form of the time lost. Student absences sharply reduce student achievement, particularly in math, but school closings appear to have little impact. These findings should not be taken to mean that instructional time does not matter for student learning; the bulk of the evidence suggests it does. A more likely explanation is that schools and teachers are well prepared to deal with the coordinated disruptions caused by snow days—much more so than they are to handle the less dramatic but more frequent disruptions caused by poor student attendance.
I find that each extra day with at least 4 but fewer than 10 inches of snow leads to just .04 additional school closings but .08 additional student absences (see Figure 2). The size of the latter effect implies that, for a classroom of 25 students, each additional moderately snowy day would result in about two students more being absent. Each day with snowfall of 10 inches or more, in contrast, leads to .51 additional closings. Controlling for the number of moderately snowy days, however, heavy snow leaves student absences unaffected, since all students are generally out of school.
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We begin with data from all elementary schools in Maryland that did not make AYP in math and reading during the 2002–03 to 2004–05 school years. We adjust actual performance by the number of days lost in a given year multiplied by the marginal effect of an additional day on test performance as reported in Marcotte and Hemelt’s study of Maryland schools. This allows us to estimate what the proficiency rates in each subject would have been had those schools been open for all scheduled instructional days prior to the assessment. We then compare the predicted proficiency rate to the AYP threshold.
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While our studies use data from different states and years, and employ somewhat different statistical methods, they yield very similar results on the value of additional instructional days for student performance. We estimate that an additional 10 days of instruction results in an increase in student performance on state math assessments of just under 0.2 standard deviations. To put that in perspective, the percentage of students passing math assessments falls by about one-third to one-half a percentage point for each day school is closed.
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Other researchers have examined impacts of instructional time on learning outcomes in other states, with similar results. For example, University of Virginia researcher Sarah Hastedt has shown that closures that eliminated 10 school days reduced math and reading performance on the Virginia Standards of Learning exams by 0.2 standard deviations, the same magnitude we estimate for the neighboring state of Maryland. Economist David Sims of Brigham Young University in 2008 took advantage of a 2001 law change in Wisconsin that required all school districts in that state to start after September 1. Because some districts were affected while others were not, he was also able to provide unusually convincing evidence on the effect of changes in the number of instructional days. He found additional instruction days to be associated with increased scores in math for 4th-grade students, though not in reading.
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Our studies use variation from one year to the next in snow or the number of instructional days cancelled due to bad weather to explain changes in each school’s test scores over time. We also take into account changing characteristics of schools and students, as well as trends in performance over time. The advantage of this approach is that weather is obviously outside the control of school districts and thereby provides a source of variation in instructional time that should be otherwise unrelated to school performance. Furthermore, Maryland and Colorado are ideal states in which to study weather-related cancellations. In addition to having large year-to-year fluctuations in snowfall, annual snowfall in both states typically varies widely across In Maryland and Colorado, some districts are exposed to much greater variation in the severity of their winters than others, which allows us to use the remaining districts to control for common trends shared by all districts in the state. Further, because we have data from many years, we can compare students in years with many weather-related cancellations to students in the same school in previous or subsequent years with fewer cancellations. Although cancellations are eventually made up, tests are administered in the spring in both states. This is months before the makeup days held prior to summer break.