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Expert Panels Weigh in on Learning Time, Assessments

Earlier this year, President Obama spoke of the need to have students spend more time in school, by extending the school day, and possibly shortening the summer recess. The current school calendar, he argued, puts the United States at a "competitive disadvantage" with top-performing nations. Over the past few weeks, there's been a surge of recycled interest in what Obama said months ago, much of apparently stemming from a recent story in the Associated Press, which lays out some of the pros and cons of extended learning time (Though the headline on the story version I saw was the rather doomsdayish "Obama Would Curtail Summer Vacation.").

A new white paper by the National Academy of Education examines extended learning time in more depth, saying that its success usually depends on several factors, particularly whether the extra time is tied to new efforts to improve instruction, rather than just doing more of the same.

I saw a mix of positive and ambivalent reactions to Obama's pitch, but the white paper suggests that strong majorities of Americans support different kinds of extended learning time, at least in theory. Ninety-six percent of respondents in a 2007 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll said that extended learning time would be a way of helping more low-performing students.

The Academy report recommends that the federal government support research to test "promising" practices to increase learning time, to determine what exactly is about them works well.

A second white paper (which you can link to, above) from the Academy calls for the federal government to support the redesign of tests to accomplish several goals. Those include establishing clearer connections between "content" and "performance" standards—basically, expectations for what students need to know, and standards by which their performance is judged. The paper also calls for the feds to support testing that more precisely measures not only students' current performance, but also their academic progress.

"We are poised to make dramatic advances in assessment within a decade if we can make the commitment needed now," Lorrie Shepard, a University of Colorado professor who co-edited the paper on assessment, said in a statement that accompanied the paper. "We need to marshal the resources of the federal government and our best researchers in a program of research and development to significantly improve our assessment tools."

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