ATLANTA - Throughout the 1990s, one of the hottest trends in education was block scheduling, but now it's exam time for the concept.
Advocates of the system - which has high school students taking fewer, longer classes - say it gives teachers more quality time to teach and lets students focus more on important subjects.
"So far, I think our teachers like it, and I think our students like it," said Paul Brinson, the principal of Effingham County High School, where block scheduling became the norm in the late '90s.
But as test scores emerge over time, more educators are beginning to question whether the system is actually making a difference.
A report last summer by the Georgia Department of Education suggested that block-schedule schools rarely performed better - and in some cases performed worse - than their nonblock peers on SATs, graduation tests and other exams.
"The results, on their face, would seem to indicate block scheduling is not solving any problems," said state Board of Education Chairwoman Cathy Henson.
Members of the board are awaiting results from a new study, hoping to take a closer look at how the block system stacks up against traditional, 50-minute classes.
THE FIRST GEORGIA school to implement block scheduling did so in 1994, the same year the National Education Commission released a report, Prisoners of Time, that suggested schools experiment with the new schedules.
As of last year, 155 Georgia schools had adopted some form of the plan.
Block scheduling comes in two basic forms: the 4x4 model and the A-B system. Under the 4x4, students take four long classes, usually 90 minutes, during a semester and switch to four different classes the next semester.
The A-B, also called the Block-8 or alternating system, lets students take four extended classes one day then switch to four different classes the next day.
Last year, 91 percent of Georgia's block-schedule schools used the 4x4 method.
Supporters of the system say it gives teachers a chance to really dig into their subjects. In the old 50-minute classes, they say, so much time was wasted changing classes, taking attendance and packing up to leave that little teaching could get done. It also allows more flexibility. But a growing crowd of critics sees a different picture.
First, they say, most high school students don't have a long-enough attention span for classes that last 90 minutes or longer.
THEY SAY THE 4x4 model leads to problems with retention. They argue that students have a harder time on year-end tests that cover subjects they haven't studied since the first semester of the year.
But the schedules have advantages aside from test scores, Mr. Brinson said.
Students are in the school's hallways less often, leading to a drop in discipline problems, he said.
And the 4x4 plan lets students spread their workload out - usually taking two core classes, such as math and English, per semester along with two others, such as physical education and a vocational class.
"That keeps them from being too overloaded," Mr. Brinson said.
And experts say comparing the test results of all block-schedule schools with nonblock schedule schools may paint an unrealistic picture. Many schools that switched to the new schedules were already struggling, Ms. Henson said.
Meanwhile, practically none of the educators at the schools using the program in Georgia has expressed a desire to go back to traditional classes, which they say have their own set of pros and cons.
"It's just one of those things," Mr. Brinson said. "You take some good and some bad no matter how you do it."
Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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