Schools facing sanctions because of low standardized test scores may be resorting to a rudimentary form of doping: boosting the calories in student lunches. Economists David Figlio at the University of Florida in Gainesville and Joshua Winicki at the American Institutes of Research in Washington, D.C., randomly inspected a month of menus from 23 elementary school districts in Virginia. The researchers found that districts with the poorest track records boosted the caloric content of lunches by an average of 15 percent on test-taking days.
A sugar high can sweeten test scores: In the districts that served high-calorie lunches, fifth-grade math pass rates increased by 11 percent, and verbal and history pass rates increased by 6 percent. Despite the added energy, however, the nutritional content of these meals was no better or even worse than on other days. The pumped-up meals derived nearly all their extra energy from sugars and simple carbohydrates—empty calories. Figlio is not surprised that the strategy was a success; many studies have found a link between sugary foods and short-term cognitive ability. "Everything the schools did was within legal guidelines, so I don't like the word cheating, but they certainly were gaming the system," Figlio says. "I've been bringing my third grader extra cookies on test days."