If you have school-age children, chances are you've already begun shopping for new books and clothes. Or maybe you had to do that weeks ago. Many schools are starting so early now--some in July--that quite a few parents, and some legislators, are squawking. Three states have enacted legislation this year to roll back school starting dates. The rush to start school earlier has been driven, like so many other aspects of contemporary education policy, by standardized testing. Many states give tests on fixed dates, so superintendents want to open for business and begin offering instruction well ahead of neighboring and competing districts. There are also studies that indicate kids can forget a lot of material if they're given too many weeks off in a row. But there's been no real proof that starting earlier and getting in an extra week or two of cramming before the big test makes kids any smarter. And chopping up school breaks--giving pupils a week or 10 days off later in the year, rather than a block of three months in the summer--has proven inconvenient to many parents who want their families to have traditional summer vacations. Then there's climate. "In Florida in August, we have kids in 90 degree-plus classrooms and a lot of interruptions because of hurricanes," says state Representative Dan Gelber. He sponsored a new state law that will block districts from opening any earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.
Perhaps ironically, the same push for standardized testing that led to mid-summer openings is now creating an opposite demand. Although superintendents want to get a head start in the testing competition, state education departments are required by federal law to report on individual schools' progress by the first week of classes. Many struggle to get last year's data ready in time for early to mid-August school openings. So while there's pressure at the local level to start earlier, there's pressure at the state level to push things back. "Schools live at the confluence of a variety of issues and pressures," says Andrew Rotherham, a member of the Virginia State Board of Education, "some of which relate to education and some of which don't."