Student test scores drop when school years are shortened, especially among low-income students and English language learners, according to a report released Monday by Education Trust-West and several advocacy organizations.

Yet, the California Legislature decided in 2009 to allow school districts to shorten the year by five days -- from 180 to 175 days -- due to budget cuts. If state revenues fail to meet projections this year, schools could cut another seven days as part of a trigger authorized under the state budget.

This could result in some districts shortening the year to 168 days, which would be one of the shortest school years in the country and would be 75 days shorter than the school year in Japan, which has the longest academic year. In the United States, the average is 180 days.

"We're seeing revenues now that are so far behind, we're very worried about the trigger," said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based education advocacy group. "We've already seen school districts cut their school year and cut summer school."

The policy brief, called "Turning Back the Clock: The Inequitable Impact of Shortening California's School Year," said that charter schools and districts that have increased learning time have seen jumps in test scores, while the opposite is true in districts that have cut school days. For example, the West Fresno Elementary School District expanded the school day to eight hours in grades 4 through 8 and has seen its Academic Performance Index score grow between 40 and 60 points each year since 2007; the score is based on results on standardized tests.

In the East Bay, the Newark, Mt. Diablo and Oakley school districts expect to cut their school years by five days even without the trigger. Mt. Diablo, however, still needs to negotiate the cuts with its teachers' union.

Even if the trigger is pulled, shorter school years are not a done deal, since every district would have to negotiate furlough days with their unions, said Peggy Marshburn, spokeswoman for the Contra Costa County Office of Education.

"It's not forgone that it can happen before the end of the school year," she said.

Districts that can't negotiate such agreements would have to make cuts elsewhere, she said. However, Marshburn agreed that shortening the school year impacts students.

"Some of the districts are already in the shortened school year, so obviously anything that happens in that direction is going to affect student achievement," she said. "There's just no question about it."

Ramanathan said he is urging the public to call the governor and legislators to ask them to find other ways to balance the budget.

"At the minimum, we should have the average school year that the rest of the country has," he said. "What we really should be thinking about is how to expand that school year and we're having the opposite conversation."

Staff writers Paul Burgarino, Robert Dennis, Eric Louie, Jonathan Morales and Katy Murphy contributed to this report.

How many days?
Academic years vary at East Bay districts:
175 days: New Haven, Newark, Mt. Diablo*, Oakley
177 days: Byron
178 days: Acalanes, John Swett
179 days: Pittsburg
180 days: Antioch, Brentwood, Castro Valley, Dublin, Fremont, Hayward, Knightsen, Lafayette, Liberty, Livermore, Moraga, Orinda, Oakland, Pleasanton, San Ramon Valley, West Contra Costa
*Needs to be negotiated with teachers' union
Source: Bay Area News Group research

ONLINE
  • The Education-Trust policy brief is available at www.edtrust.org/west.
  • For Additional details, read the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.