Researchers led by Peggy S. Keller, PhD, of the University of Kentucky, theorized that earlier school start times would be associated with lower standardized test scores, poorer attendance, more students being left back, lower school rank and school underperformance. They also expected that earlier start times would be especially risky for school performance standards in more disadvantaged schools, including Appalachian schools and those with a higher percentage of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches.
"What we found, however, was early start times were associated with worse performance in schools in more affluent districts - that is, those with fewer kids getting free or reduced-cost lunches," Keller said. "For schools with more disadvantaged students, later start times did not seem to make a difference in performance, possibly because these children already have so many other risk factors."
"The relationship between earlier start times and poorer academic performance may be explained by the physical, behavioral and psychological ramifications of sleep deprivation," the researchers wrote. "Students may therefore lose the ability to remain alert and focused in the classroom." Getting less sleep might also increase the frequency and severity of illness among students, which could also lead to lagging performance, they said.
Another unexpected finding was higher rates of students repeating grades in schools with later start times. Every additional minute later a school started increased retention rates by 0.2 percent, the researchers found.
"To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine student retention in relation to school start times, and it is therefore difficult to draw firm conclusions about this finding," Keller said. "However, given that other indices of school performance were improved at later school start times, one possible explanation is that once the average students begin to improve, students with learning difficulties have an especially hard time keeping up."
Most prior research on the effect of early school start times has focused on middle and high school students, on the theory that youngsters going through puberty need more sleep. The researchers in this study concluded that research on school start times shouldn't focus exclusively on adolescents.
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