UF study suggests schools boost empty calories to raise test scores

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Faced with ever-increasing pressure to boost state-mandated test scores, some school districts have sought an advantage by pumping up their pupils with extra calories from junk food, a study conducted at the University of Florida suggests.

The study, published this month in the National Bureau of Economic Research's online working paper series, found that on test days many districts fed students high-energy foods with low nutritional value because the empty calories gives students a short-term mental lift much like carbohydrate loading energizes athletes, said David Figlio, a UF economist whose research focuses on the design and evaluation of education and social policy.

"We find significant evidence that school districts, particularly those threatened with at least one failing or sanctioned school, respond by giving students more empty calories on testing days," said Figlio, who also is a faculty research fellow for the National Bureau of Economic Research. "These are calories found by nutritionists to have substantial very short-term cognitive effects, but no long-term benefits."

Studies have shown that students perform better at academic tasks in the several hours following a large dose of glucose or empty calories, which improves knowledge or cognitive ability in addition to boosting energy.

Figlio and Joshua Winicki, an economist with the American Institutes for Research, did a detailed study of elementary school lunch menus from 23 randomly selected school districts in Virginia during the 1999-2000 school year, comparing nutritional content on days of state-mandated tests with that of non-test dates. The study was funded by The National Science Foundation.

As part of the national 2001 "No Child Left Behind" Act, states must evaluate schools based on the percentage of students meeting proficiency standards on state curriculum-based examinations. Schools with large numbers of students failing the test face sanc

Contact: David Figlio
University of Florida

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