Palo Alto high schoolers report spending between an hour and a half and over two hours a night on homework, depending on their grade level, according to a survey that the school district recently conducted. In addition, the survey found that teachers were giving tests and assigning students homework due on their seven-period days, which Palo Alto Unified policy has forbidden.
When district administrators presented the survey results at Tuesday's school board meeting, board members said they were pleased to get data showing how much work students are putting in outside of school, but that they want to see a more detailed analysis to understand the current level of compliance with district policy.
The district's homework policy lays out varying expectations by grade level and whether a student is enrolled in honors or Advanced Placement courses. Ninth graders can "reasonably expect" their average homework load to stay below 90 minutes a night, while 12th graders can expect no more than two hours a day. Students in AP and honors classes shouldn't top three hours of work per night.
According to the survey, freshmen are averaging 97 minutes a night, sophomores are at 110 minutes, juniors are seeing 134 minutes and seniors came in at 119 minutes. The data presented to the board on Feb. 22 didn't break the averages down by whether students are taking honors and APs, but over 75% of the high schoolers who filled out the survey said they were taking at least one of these classes.
Board President Ken Dauber said that it looks like the district is seeing good progress on reducing homework loads to the levels that the board has laid out but that the differing expectations between grade levels and course type means more analysis is needed.
"We need, I think, a little bit more fine grain detail to understand how many students are seeing more homework than is contemplated under the policy," Dauber said.
Board member Todd Collins similarly said that he would like to see a distribution of the amount of time students reported working, so that he could tell how many are over the district's thresholds.
Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Sharon Ofek told the board that the survey had been written, administered and initially analyzed for board review within the span of about two weeks and that more analysis was warranted. The survey was given to students during the school day and had a 61% participation rate at Paly and 52% at Gunn, Ofek said. Middle schools also distributed the survey and saw higher participation rates: 88% at Fletcher, 68% at Greene and 78% at JLS.
Middle schoolers reported lower homework loads than their high school counterparts, with an average of 45 minutes for 6th graders, 47 minutes for 7th graders and 53 minutes for 8th graders. Those totals are well within the limits laid out in the board's homework policy, which says the average homework load should not exceed 60 minutes for 6th graders, 70 minutes for 7th graders and 80 minutes for 8th graders.
Diving deeper into the policy
The survey also dove into other aspects of homework, beyond the raw number of minutes students report spending each night.
For instance, students were asked whether they have had homework due on a "seven-period day." The district uses a block schedule, with longer classes that meet every other day. Students only attend all their periods once a week and the district policy prohibits homework from being due on that day, in an attempt to avoid overloading students. Nonetheless, 71% of high schoolers and 40% of middle schoolers reported having had homework due on a seven-period day.
Board policy also prohibits graded tests or quizzes on the seven-period day, but 30% of high schoolers and 40% of middle schoolers still reported having these types of assessments.
"I know this is one of the areas that our principals are itching to get the data on, so that they can have a conversation with staff around this," Ofek said, noting that the restrictions on seven-period days are some of the newest updates to the district's homework rules.
The board updated the administrative regulation that lays out the homework expectations in August 2021. Dauber said it was disappointing that students were reporting noncompliance with these new rules.