Did DCPS cut recess to make room for testing?

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.

Photo by Kristine Jones

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. 


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Totally agree with you. Spending 22 days a year on testing is ludicrous, and 15/20 minutes a day of recess is also ridiculously low. This should be 30 or 40 minutes a day. Let the kids burn off energy outside, as opposed to disrupting actual learning time.

by Kyle-w on Sep 6, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

"Many others, and study after study, have made the case for the importance of recess and unstructured play during the school day"

Yeah, let's just goof off and basket-weave all day. Those studies are hooey. Kids should focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. They can play after school, if not with friends, with parents. And parents should make time available to do so, and not outsource yet another aspect of parenting to the government.

by Steve on Sep 6, 2013 4:13 pm • linkreport


Thats interesting that you are able to just dismiss studies (done with data, and actual research) in favor of your gut feeling. Perhaps if you wrote a paper, using statistics and research, your point would hold water. In the meantime, I will stick with the scientifically accepted research.

by Kyle-w on Sep 6, 2013 4:56 pm • linkreport

Yeah, let's just goof off and basket-weave all day. Those studies are hooey. Kids should focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. They can play after school, if not with friends, with parents.

I'm pretty sure that I had recess like most normal kids growing up, as have most kids for generations. When did it become considered a bad thing?

by Tyro on Sep 6, 2013 4:58 pm • linkreport

It may be because a surprising number of children don't know how to play on a playground. They live a lot of their lives with video games, trapped in apartments. When we spent several years at Thomson elementary an extreme version of this played out, kids would spend the 20 -30 minutes they had beating, teasing, tormenting each other. They had a lousy indoor playground, very little natural light. They did not use what equipment we could get, for example the jump ropes were used to tie up other kids. Not surprisingly the principal banned them. We had to teach them the idea of jump rope rhymes. It also did not work on the surface. Four square never happened, they kept throwing the balls at each other. Teachers basically lost 30 minutes everyday dealing with grievances from the playground. I thought this was just a problem at this school until I started reading teaching memoirs from other areas with poor facilities and poor kids. Similar set of issues was commonly described by these teachers. So I can see how some schools would think it would make sense. How many social pathologies can schools be expected to fix?

Why are not more us screaming about the social studies and science. NCLB cannibalized these areas and we seem immune to caring now. But it is the very loss of these areas of inquiry that may be harming kids, reading is more than decoding, it is connecting ideas, you have to learn something in a wide range of areas before you can do this. We need to spend less time on just "reading decoding/skill" and more time actually teaching history and science, small children can and do enjoy these lessons, they give them wider context to their lives.

by DC Parent on Sep 7, 2013 8:37 am • linkreport

The "test taking time" at 22 percent represents the student learning time. But let's figure in the time to record the results and look at how that affects teaching. Recording the results isn't free -- it takes a large chunk of time away from teacher lesson planning and other efforts to positively affect learning (e.g. getting social services for kids that need them).

This is done with the stated purpose of getting good data to "hold teachers accountable" for student learning.

Is it really a good idea to have the school year shortened by nearly a quarter just so we can "know how our children is learning"?

And why would second graders need the equivalent of one day a week devoted only to testing?

Most of the essential preparation for life and education (which includes "College Readiness") is to learn the life skills of working with others. DC Parent's comment shows that this most important item (how to organize in groups and interact within the norms of expected behavior) isn't being taught, but instead is being dropped from the curriculum.

by DCPS grad parent on Sep 8, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Another DC Mom on Sep 9, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport


The link in this article to studies about the benefits of recess addresses the benefits of *structured* recess. I have witnessed first hand recess at several DC schools, it is rarely structured in any fashion, in my experience. I don't think having kids run in circles screaming for thirty minutes has any proven scientific benefit, but if you have a link to a study on the benefit of unstructured recess/a brief moment of chaos, please post that. Also, please locate a study that indicates the difference in value to children between a 15 minute recess and a 30 minute recess. If we're going to use empirical data, let's find the data that addresses the issue at hand.

by Alan on Sep 9, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

There is plenty of data out there documenting the important role unstructured play has in the lives of young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published a number of good studies on it, and concluded...

"Recess is at the heart of a vigorous debate over the role of schools in promoting the optimal development of the whole child. A growing trend toward reallocating time in school to accentuate the more academic subjects has put this important facet of a child’s school day at risk. Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons."

I absolutely agree that not all DCPS schools currently offer "safe and well-supervised" recess, but I also have seen first-hand that it's a very solvable problem. Playworks in particular does great professional development for teachers and other adults who supervise recess. I would love to see DCPS offer schools real support to make recess successful.

As for 15 minutes vs 30, at my kid's school the recess clock starts ticking when they leave their classroom, which means that the amount of time it takes to move over 100 3rd graders down two flights of stairs and out of the building to the playground is all part of "recess." Getting the kids outside and back in takes up nearly 15 minutes.

by Laura on Sep 10, 2013 9:18 am • linkreport


Are you saying that your child effectively only has 15 minutes of recess time, due to the time required to move students from playground to classroom? I would say that roughly matches my observation. The question becomes, is that effective 15 (or 20) minutes quantitatively different from, say, the 5 minutes or so of effective recess students would get, deducting time spent going to and from the playground, under a 15 minute recess scenario? Where's the empirical data studying the value of a certain time length for recess? Would a quick release/moment to run around suffice or does it have to be a certain length of time to be effective? Does this change depending on the age of children, e.g. should sixth graders have the same amount of time for recess as second graders?

by Alan on Sep 10, 2013 9:52 am • linkreport

@DCPS grad parent

You're reading the chart wrong, test-taking time is 22 *days*, not 22 percent of the entire school year (actually, it says above that test taking is 12% of the school year). That still seems a bit high, but much more reasonable than 22%. I do think around 5% of the year should be reserved for these type of tests because they allow teachers to design individualized planning that address each student's needs and strengths.

by Alan on Sep 10, 2013 9:56 am • linkreport

@Alan - Yes a "30-minute recess" really means 15 minutes on the playground. The "15-minute recess" meant virtually no recess.

The value of recess as an opportunity for unstructured play is a completely different idea than stretching one's legs or a "quick release." The data around unstructured play as an important developmental activity assumes enough time for an immersive experience, certainly more than 5 or 10 minutes. The principal at my other kid's school, where recess is plentiful, wrote to parents:

"As we have gathered more from brain research in the past decade, we have learned much about child development and that it is linked closely with the growth patterns of the brain. Recess is not a luxury of the child. It is the important work they do. It is where they figure out relationships, independence and resilience. It is where they test their theories unabashed. Wanting children to have unstructured time is not a sign of laziness in adults. It is not a time when children go about not learning. It is a rich meaningful time that provides more than the physical wants or even needs of the child. It is a rare moment when the child gets to exist in the whole, using her brain and physicality in tandem, without the guidance of adult conventions or preconceived thoughts. It serves a real purpose within the context of the school."

by Laura on Sep 10, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

Thanks for correcting days/percent. Twelve percent is still high for what is essentially a test to create records for accountability, not necessarily for assessment to provide information for better teaching.

Has DCPS / OSSE released the questions for the PIAs? (This is off topic for recess, but linked to open data).

I understand that the CAS test (that final, high stakes test for the teacher) needs to shroud the test questions in secrecy so that teachers cannot teach exactly the test and also so that test preparers don't need to rebuild (and rescale) the test questions each year. BUT this doesn't apply to the PIAS. The PIAs measure intermediate results and are only used by the teacher to assess what the kids are (not) learning. They cannot be used to game the system since there isn't any benefit to the teacher to get perfect scores on the PIAs; only the CAS scores "count". The same questions could be (re-)used each year.

Exposing the PIA questions would allow others to evaluate the quality of the questions and gauge whether the question maps to the curriculum.

One problem with tests written by adults is that all too often the question is written in language ABOVE the grade level being tested. This embeds the ability to read above grade level into the grade level test. When testing math skills you should test math skills, not literacy and math. If you are testing literacy at grade level, the question should be written in language BELOW grade level so you don't fail the kid who cannot decode the question being asked.

by DCPS grad parent on Sep 10, 2013 3:08 pm • linkreport

Really appreciate everyone's comments.


I don't know whether there are any studies out there supporting 15 or 30 or 60 mins for recess.

From my perspective of DCPS parent, the recess issue was confusing because there was no explanation (and certainly nothing data-driven from what was communicated) that supported the halving of time allocated to recess.

It was also confusing that DCPS would implement this change that conflicted with their own Local Wellness Policy of minimum of 20 mins (perhaps there was empirical data behind that policy?).

But what I really worry about is the impression that policies are being overlooked and childrens' developmental needs are even being overlooked in order to make room for standardized testing.

I'll say it again. If the system is allocating so much time to testing, I can't help but wonder what message teachers are getting. Teaching to the test seems like an unintended, but obvious consequence.


yes and yes! Thank you!

by Sandra Moscoso on Sep 10, 2013 4:20 pm • linkreport

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