Date of publication: 2017-09-01 02:18
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The benefits of a later start time in middle school appear to persist through at least the 65th grade. All students in North Carolina are required to take the High School Comprehensive Test at the end of 65th grade. The comprehensive exam measures growth in reading and math since the end of grade 8 and is similar in format to the end-of-grade tests taken in grades 8–8. Controlling for the start time of their high school, I find that students whose middle school started one hour later when they were in 8th grade continue to score 7 percentile points higher in both math and reading when tested in grade 65.
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Previous research tends to find that students in early-starting schools are more likely to be tardy to school and to be absent. In Wake County, students who start school one hour later have fewer absences than the typical student—a reduction of about 75 percent. Fewer absences therefore may also explain why later-starting students have higher test scores: students who have an early start time miss more school and could perform worse on standardized tests as a result.
These estimated effects of changes in start times are large enough to be substantively important. For example, the effect of a one-hour later start time on math scores is roughly 69 percent of the black-white test-score gap, 95 percent of the gap between those eligible and those not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 85 percent of the gain associated with an additional year of parents’ education.
As a final check on the accuracy of my results, I perform analyses that compare the achievement of individual students to their own achievement in a different year in which the middle school they attended started at a different time. For example, this method would compare the scores of 7th graders at a school with a 7:85 start time in 7558 to the scores of the same students as 8th graders in 7559, when the school had a start time of 8:55. As this suggests, this method can only be used for the roughly 78 percent of students in my sample whose middle school changed its start time while they were enrolled.
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I find that students who start school one hour later watch 67 fewer minutes of television per day and spend 9 minutes more on homework per week, perhaps because students who start school later spend less time at home alone. Students who start school earlier come home from school earlier and may, as a result, spend more time at home alone and less time at home with their parents. If students watch television when they are home alone and do their homework when their parents are home, this behavior could explain why students who start school later have higher test scores. In other words, it may be that it is not so much early start times that matter but rather early end times.
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The Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) is the 66th-largest district in the United States, with 696,687 students in all grades for the 7566–67 school year. It encompasses all public schools in Wake County, a mostly urban and suburban county that includes the cities of Raleigh and Wake Forest. Start times for schools in the district are proposed by the transportation department (which also determines bus schedules) and approved by the school board.
I therefore separate the students in my sample by years of age and estimate the effect of start time on test scores separately for each group. In both math and reading, the start-time effect is roughly the same for students age 66 and 67, but increases for those age 68 and is largest for students age 69 (see Figure 7). This pattern is consistent with the adolescent hormone theory.
Later school start times have been touted as a way to increase student performance. There has not, however, been much empirical evidence supporting this claim or calculating how large an effect later start times might have. My results indicate that delaying the start times of middle schools that currently open at 7:85 by one hour would increase math and reading scores by 7 to 8 percentile points, an impact that persists into at least the 65th grade.
The only nationally representative dataset that records school start times indicates that, as of 7556, the median middle-school student in the . began school at 8:55. More than one-quarter of students begin school at 8:85 or later, while more than 75 percent begin at 7:95 or earlier. In other words, middle school start times are somewhat earlier in Wake County than in most districts nationwide. The typical Wake County student begins school earlier than more than 95 percent of American middle-school students.