Photo by Kristine Jones

When DCPS students kicked off the 2013-14 school year last week, many parents were upset to discover that in some schools recess had been reduced to only 15 minutes. They might also be upset to find out that students end up spending almost the same amount of time taking standardized tests.

In a little-noticed budget document issued last spring, the minimum time for recess for children in preschool through 5th grade was cut to a quarter of an hour. After numerous listserv discussions and emails to DCPS officials DCPS revised the requirement, to conform to its own Local Wellness Policy, which specifies that students should get at least 20 minutes of recess per day.

When I heard about the recess flap, I was in the what-is-DCPS-thinking camp. Like some other parents, I’m not even sure that 20 minutes of recess is enough.  But I also found myself wondering how these scheduling requirements determine how our children spend their days in school.

If you look at the requirements for the current school year  (see the table on p. 65), the time allocations seem sensible enough, aside from recess. There is a focus on literacy and math, with a lesser amount of time devoted to social studies or science and electives or “specials” like art, music, language, and PE. There are even 45 “flexible” minutes that can be used to meet the needs of students at a particular school, including additional time for recess.

But the table in the budget document doesn’t take into account the time allocated to standardized testing for 2nd- to 10th-graders. These students take Paced Interim Assessments, or PIAs, every 6 to 8 weeks. In my child’s school, this takes about 3 days.  Add PIAs to the 10 days of DC CAS, and the time spent by students (and teachers) in testing starts to really eat into instructional time.

With testing in the picture, the time allocation starts looking less balanced. If you were to convert the scheduling requirements into days of the school year, 22 of the 182 instructional days would be dedicated to testing. That’s only one day less than would be spent on a combination of lunch and recess.

Principals do have some leeway in deciding how to use the “flexible” time in the schedule. But they have no discretion in deciding how much time to allocate to standardized tests. What message is DCPS sending to families by dedicating so much time to testing? And what message does it send to teachers? 

Moreover, are DC schools shaving time off the minimum requirements for “non-academic” activities like recess in order to supplement instructional time? Or are they shaving off that time to allow enough time for testing?

Many others, and study after study, have made the case for the importance of recess and unstructured play during the school day. While I’m glad DCPS raised the recess threshold, I’m also wary of how the change is going to impact other “non-academic” time, like lunch. I’m no educator, but my guess is that hungry kids will not make the best learners.

Sandra Moscoso runs the World Bank Finances Program by day and works on community efforts around education, active transportation, and open government by night. Sandra lives in small, quaint, Washington, DC, where she tries to get a little biking in with her husband and two children.