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Will Pre-Break Finals Really Reduce Student Stress? [Part One]

With the vote on whether to switch PAUSD’s first-semester finals to before winter break coming up on Tuesday, local experts and professionals weigh in on the controversial question—will pre-break finals really reduce student stress?

The day that has caused thousands of parents, teachers, staff and students to hold their breath in anticipation finally arrives Tuesday, when the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education will vote on whether to approve a proposed new calendar for school years 2012-13 and 2013-14 that includes the major change of shifting first-semester finals to before winter break, in December.

Though a recent survey conducted by the district shows an average of around 66-75 percent of both parents and students favor the idea of pre-break finals in general, when one factors in the “trade-offs” the district is telling everyone they would have to live with in order to get them, the favorable numbers plunge significantly.

Pre-Break Finals: What Will That Cost Us?

The apparent trade-offs families will have to deal with if the proposed calendar passes on Tuesday include the following: a school start date that is anywhere from nine to 13 days earlier than the norm—Aug. 15 or 16 versus the usual Aug. 24 or 28—and a “crunch” of sorts during the month of December, as students are forced to divide their time between end-of-the-semester assignments, studying for finals, extra-curricular activities such as sports championships and holiday arts performances—and, for seniors, finishing up college applications, a significant percentage of which have a deadline of around Dec. 31 to Jan. 3.

In addition, it appears that the first and second semesters each year, as a result of pre-break finals, could differ in length anywhere from nine to 20 days, which has many district staff worried that students who take semester-long courses such as English and social studies during the shorter second semester will be at a disadvantage, either by having to learn the same amount of material in less time, or because some teachers may be inclined to cut out some class material.

When taking those factors into account, all the district appears to be left with is a debate with no clear winner.

As Tuesday night’s vote looms ever closer, Palo Alto Patch asked a handful of local experts and professionals the million-dollar question—will a switch to pre-break finals really help reduce student stress? Or could it potentially increase it?

Where’s the Data?

The question on many board members’ and parents’ lips seems to be: Where’s the data? How does the district know pre-break finals will reduce student stress, since most seem to point to stress reduction as the motivation behind calendar changes in the first place?

That very question was thrown around endlessly last fall, when the calendar changes were first proposed, to buy itself more time to gather data that would either support or refute pre-break finals. The district’s calendar committee, led by Associate Superintendent Scott Bowers, then conducted its own survey of students, parents and district staff members in January, and presented the results to the board and community on April 26.

However, some argue that one survey is not enough to go on, that some of the questions are misleading—one question asks if the survey-taker would still support pre-break finals if the school start date was five or six days earlier, while the calendar they are voting on actually pushes it nine to 13 days earlier—and that some important questions were omitted, such as a question some PTA members claim they asked to be added to the survey but that the district declined to add, asking students whether they mind doing schoolwork over the winter break.

Interestingly, the survey the district conducted itself is the only one it references when debating the issue of the calendar change at the school board meetings.

Other surveys have been conducted on the district's students recently, however, that no one mentions.

The city of Palo Alto Youth Council conducted a survey of nearly 400 students from and high schools during the 2009-10 school year, asking students what stresses them the most and what they thought would help make school easier.

When asked how stressed they were, on a scale of 1 to 5, the average for the students surveyed was between 3.1 and 3.5, and when asked how stressed they thought their friends were, the average was between 3.5 and 3.7.

On average, 78.5 percent of the students surveyed said homework was their biggest stressor. “Test stacking,” or having multiple tests on the same day, was the second highest stressor.

When asked what would make school easier, only 4 percent said that pre-break finals would. The most popular answer was “less academic pressure and competition.” Also mentioned was “eliminate busywork from homework and simply let us learn useful things.” Interestingly, the survey required the answers to this question be written in the students’ own words, rather than asking them to choose from pre-written answers on a multiple-choice list.

Adam Howard, a coordinator for the youth council, remains doubtful about the the value of switching to pre-break finals.

"I don’t think it would be the concrete switch to pre-break finals that would help [reduce student stress]," he said, "but rather, how teachers treat the break. Ultimately, I think, having that time when kids don’t have anything to worry about as far as schoolwork or projects due when they get back would be the most beneficial. But, I’ve talked to a lot of kids who say they can’t really relax over the break, because they have too much schoolwork to do.”

A ‘Work-Free’ Break—Is It A Futile Concept?

Though the district declared the winter break should be “work-free” some time ago, many students are stepping forward to say—and indicating on surveys—that they have assignments due soon after returning from break—forcing them to work during their time off.

In the district survey, 50 percent of students indicated that, during winter break, they worked on assignments due the first week after school resumed, and roughly 34 percent said they worked on school projects. With first-semester finals in January, 43 percent said they studied for finals over winter break. Nearly 70 percent of students said they had anywhere between one and three different teachers assign work that was due the first week back to school, despite the mandate given to teachers that winter break should be “work-free.”

In a survey of Paly students recently conducted by the school newspaper, The Campanile, feelings over pre-break finals were split pretty evenly down the middle, and more than 60 percent of sophomores, juniors and seniors said they had worked on schoolwork or studied over winter break in the past.

Nearly 70 percent of students said the idea of first-semester finals conflicting with college application deadlines was “definitely a problem” for them. When asked how they felt about other potential “trade-offs” with pre-break finals such as a delay in getting the results of first-semester grades, the first day of winter break being as late as Dec. 22, uneven semesters, or an earlier school start date, responses fell fairly evenly on both sides—half indicated the trade-offs were a significant problem for them, and half said they would not be a problem.

Terry Godfrey, executive president of the Palo Alto Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said she thinks the fact that teachers continue to assign schoolwork that is due promptly after winter break is the more pressing issue that needs to be addressed, rather than a switch to pre-break finals, which she thinks will do more harm than good.

“While I believe kids and families are very resilient and will adjust to almost any calendar, I'm not in support of ending the first semester before winter break," she said. "[Rather], I'd welcome testing before break on the material learned to date, and then testing again at the end of January on the few weeks' of material learned after break.

“Or, I'd welcome addressing giving students a real break by getting more serious about no work assignments over break, or re-evaluating the volume and efficacy of homework overall. But, I think trying to squeeze a full semester, plus finals, in before winter break is just too much,” she added, pointing to other concerns she has as well, such as uneven semesters and the trade-off of having to cut too many school-free days in the first semester to squeeze everything in.

Godfrey  noted these are just her personal opinions and that the Palo Alto Council of PTAs has chosen not to take an official position on the proposed calendar changes, because, with more than 8,500 members, no majority opinion could be agreed upon.

“Topics like this are hard," Godrey said. "There's no one right answer; parents, students and staff can feel strongly one way or the other, and sometimes one way and then another.

“The board has to consider the input of the community, but there's no perfect way to get the input of thousands of people," she went on. "There are no perfect surveys; some people will write to the board; others will attend meetings to speak; and some aren't able to spend the time it takes to participate as fully as they'd like.”

What Do Others Say About Pre-Break Finals?

Some board members, community members and parents point to other entities to gather information to help them make their decision. One such entity is Challenge Success, a Stanford-supported, research-based organization that addresses issues of student stress and academic pressure and works with schools and parents across the country to revamp policies and procedures to foster healthier environments for students.

Denise Clark Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, is a passionate proponent of pre-break finals.

“Every school that has worked with Challenge Success that has made the change has been extremely happy, and has never gone back,” she said.

Of course, the switch to pre-break finals is only one recommendation Pope and Challenge Success make to schools to help them reduce the amount of stress their students are under, and to foster a healthier environment overall.

When asked what information or data she bases her recommendations on, Pope explained that school teams complete evaluations after they have worked with Challenge Success at annual conferences, and that a 90 percent approval rating is the average.

Furthermore, in one school, she was able to survey a group of students after implementing the change to pre-break finals and other recommended changes, and Pope said the results showed stress levels had lowered.

“More than three-quarters of these students agreed that moving exams from after the winter break to before the break reduced their stress,” Pope explained. “Administrators attested to the positive effects of the reforms, and commented that student grades, test scores and college admissions all stayed high, but the stress went down.”

However, due to confidentiality agreements, Pope is unable to disclose the name of the school in which this research and survey took place.

On Tuesday, read “Part 2: Will Pre-Break Finals Really Reduce Student Stress?” with comments from another nearby school that recently made the switch to pre-break finals, as well as the thoughts from representatives of Project Safety Net, Project Cornerstone and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, along with more thoughts from Denise Pope of Challenge Success/Stanford University.

ellen hartog May 09, 2011 at 03:52 PM
there are more cons than pros to changing the calendar - I am opposed - thank you
Diana Darcy May 09, 2011 at 05:44 PM
I am very strongly opposed to having children in school in early to mid August, and out in May. This tradeoff is not worth it in order to move finals in just two high school classes, especially when you consider that moving those two finals is likely to increase stress rather than decrease it. Finals in May are also likely to be a high stressor -- and that would be for all classes. The students' greatest stresses do not come from finals -- the stresses come from competition and overall work load. Let's not force this change just because Ms. Clark and her posse are pushing so hard for it, and because some Gunn teachers want a different work schedule for themselves. I hope the board listens to the facts, and to the community. Thanks for an excellent article.
Jennifer van der Kleut May 09, 2011 at 05:48 PM
Thank you Ellen and Darcy for sharing your opinions! Please visit the site again tomorrow for Part 2 of the article and let us know if you have any more thoughts. Thanks for reading.
Diana Darcy May 09, 2011 at 05:53 PM
I am very strongly opposed to having our children in school in early August, and out in May. The problems this would cause involve a serious loss of family bonding time with those outside Palo Alto, extreme difficulty in finding quality camps or child care in early summer, and other important problems. A group of Gunn teachers is pushing this, along with their union and Ms. Clark's posse, apparently for purposes of improving their own work schedule. It's reprehensible. This whole issue of finals is simply for two classes. That's it -- just two. The rest are year-long classes which don't need finals in the middle of the year. This is what causes student stress? No. Let's get real. What helps children reduce stress: strong family bonds. Let's not mess with them by taking away our August summer break. If those two classes really must have finals in December, go ahead then. But keep the semester end in January and the school start date at the end of August. Imagine finals -- for all classes -- in May. Huge stressor, given all the students have in May already, such as AP exams. This is not a well-thought out proposal, and reeks of union schedule desires more than anything else. Our children are not the reason -- they are simply being used as tools in this battle. Thank you for this fantastic article.

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