While experts worry that schools are “teaching to the test” on some high- pressure state exams, a pair of economists have suggested yet another way schools can boost scores: by “feeding to the test.”
The full study, “Food for Thought: The Effects of School Accountability Plans on School Nutrition,” is available from the National Bureau of Economic Research. A summary of the report has also been posted. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)
Researchers David N. Figlio and Joshua Winicki took a look at elementary school lunch menus in 23 randomly chosen districts across Virginia, where schools face penalties if most of their students continue to fail state Standards of Learning tests.
The researchers found that, on state test days, districts with schools under threat of penalties served higher-calorie lunches than those in districts where no schools faced such pressure. The average difference came to 140 calories.
“This is on a base of 800 calories, so it’s substantial,” said Mr. Figlio, an economist at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “There’s a substantial literature on how calories affect short- term cognitive performance.”
The researchers also compared the test-day lunch menus with menus at the same schools for nontest periods and found no similar spurts in caloric content.
Mr. Figlio and Mr. Winicki suspect that the schools facing the most pressure to succeed may have been innocuously “gaming the system” by adding mostly empty calories to their lunch menus.
If that was the plan, the study suggests it may have worked. The authors found a statistically significant increase in the resulting mathematics scores for the schools that packed in the calories. For other subjects tested, the link was positive but not significant.
Testing experts consulted last week said they were skeptical of the findings, however. And even the authors urged caution, because the number of threatened schools in the study sample was small.
What’s more, it’s still unclear whether students actually took the tests before or after eating the calorie-laden lunches.
A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Scholarly Citings