Giving Kids Junk Food “Treat Bags” for Standardized Testing?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on April 7, 2014

This morning I belatedly opened an email from my son’s middle school, which last week asked parents to donate items for “treat bags” for the 6th graders taking our district’s standardized tests.

Here’s what volunteers were asked to bring:  Goldfish, Blow Pops, peppermint candies, Hershey’s kisses, bite-size Snickers, 100-calorie packs of cookies, Starburst candies, clementines and cheese sticks.  (Hmm.  What do you think the ratio of clementine-to-Blow-Pop-consumption will be among most sixth graders?)

peppermintAlthough the email wasn’t clear about the purpose, I’m pretty sure these treat bags are being handed out not so much to reward kids for taking the test as to make sure they’re awake for the test itself.  I’m inferring this from the fact that peppermint candies are included in the bags; you might remember that one of the events that led me to pound out my “Food-in-the-Classroom” manifesto in 2012 was my son’s elementary school giving every kid peppermint candies and juice pouches on standardized testing days based on a theory that peppermint makes kids more alert for exams.

People, everything about this episode saddens me:   That public schools now live or die based on standardized test results, so they will do anything to boost scores.  That kids are being taught that when they need to be at peak mental performance, they should load up mostly on refined sugar.  Or, if I’ve misinterpreted what’s going on here and these bags really are an after-test “treat,” that we’re using not just food as a reward (already considered a bad idea by leading medical organizations) but the worst junk food to boot.

Does your public school hand out food on standardized testing days?  Are the offerings in line with my son’s middle school’s?  Let  me know what’s going on at your school in a comment below.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey April 7, 2014 at 9:18 am

I haven’t seen a request for treat bags like that but the teachers usually give out peppermints and Cheetos. That was one of the reasons I started my desperation strategy to pay my kids when they say no thank you to the offers of junk food and food as a reward. As far as the over the top emphasis on testing, I was shocked to see a helicopter land at school one year to deliver the score results.

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robin April 7, 2014 at 9:41 am

Yep, both the elementary and middle school gave out peppermint and other treats before, during and after the tests last week. I have pretty much given up in trying to change the culture of food in the classroom. Sad but true. I couldn’t seem to make a difference.

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Sara April 7, 2014 at 9:45 am

Agreed. What kills me is when I get notes home requesting that I make sure my child gets enough sleep and eats a healthy breakfast on test days. Then they request that I only send in a healthy snack as well. Why? so they can feel OK giving him cupcakes on the other days? Consistency is all I ask for….healthy snacks while they test, then a big cupcake party at the end!! Killing me.

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Sally Kuzemchak April 7, 2014 at 10:29 am

You sum up my feelings exactly with this statement: “People, everything about this episode saddens me.” I’m sad about bags of candy but even sadder about the larger issue of the enormous role standardized testing has taken in education. There are several layers of wrong going on at once. :(

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Jenny April 7, 2014 at 11:28 am

It all really is depressing on multiple fronts. STARR has everybody down this year, it seems….

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Ellen April 7, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Have not had any requests for treats, healthy or otherwise.
Will have to ask my daughter, a 7th grader. I
I do know that pixie sticks and like candies are banned as
students decided that snorting them made sense! Apparently, nutritional value is a secondary concern.

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Renee April 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm

My child does not tolerate artificial color, so almost everything in the “treat bag” would be off limits for him. Surely, being deprived of the treat everyone else is getting will help his anxiety on a test day, right? What about kids who have diabetes? gluten intolerance? nut, egg, diary, etc. allergies? If there must be a treat, how about asking parents to send one in their kid’s backpack. That way everyone can have a treat/snack for testing.
This complaint applies to anything teachers give out, but the real problem is the insane emphasis on these ridiculous tests. Excerpt from an article in my kid’s school newsletter:
“As STAAR testing is in full swing and many students and parents are having pre-test stress, please remember the following: Be sure your student gets a good night’s rest the evening before testing and send her/him to school with a smile. Also remember the words that served the British people so well through the World War II. KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.”
Did my kid’s school newsletter really just compare standardized testing with surviving the Blitz? Are they admitting STAAR and its ilk are evil and traumatizing?

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Susan April 22, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Yes. It is. And yes, they are. Do you honestly think that there are even 10% of teachers who think standardized testing is positive? It likens to child abuse. When the only break that some students receive on the day of the test is their 25 minute lunch break?

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Stephanie April 7, 2014 at 1:46 pm

As a pk3-7th grade we have a lot of kids taking the STAAR. Last week we put out bowls of clementines and a dispenser of cool water by the older kids restrooms. This way they could grab one during a break if needed. Ironically, we had some Foodservices people on campus that day. I mentioned that if not always, lunch menus during the month of April should have low carb, high protein meals. Offerings of roasted chicken, fresh veggies, etc. forget the “better-for-you” carnival foods but real foods that boost brain power. And healthy snacks should always be offered as well. Forget the scooby-do cookies, cheezits and juice boxes!

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Brenna Wilson April 7, 2014 at 7:09 pm

This is a sad turn of events. These treats they are giving do more than good to our kids and what’s worse is, the schools are ok with it. This opened up my eyes to what our society and learning system have become and it’s not good.

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Maggie April 9, 2014 at 3:46 pm

In the district I work for, we (food service department) provide free breakfast for every child on the day that their grade level is testing. For example, on the days that 3rd grade is testing, all 3rd graders can have a free breakfast.

In the building I work in, we provide the breakfasts in the classrooms, since our cafeteria is also the secondary gym and is in use for classes once the school day starts. Our regular breakfast, served before the school day starts, is served in the cafeteria.

This does limit what we can do. We could provide greater variety for the test day breakfasts if we could serve in the cafeteria. The menu for the free test day breakfast is cereal, skim milk, juice and a cracker type item such as teddy grahams.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 12, 2014 at 11:28 am

Maggie: I do understand the importance of a good breakfast before testing — and before every day of school, ideally. Thanks for letting us know what’s going on in your district.

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Emily Wells April 10, 2014 at 4:29 pm

My kids’ school has never sent a request for goodie bag items (for testing days or otherwise). I’d be okay with it as long as it was a rare treat, and not something that was done on a regular basis.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 12, 2014 at 11:26 am

Thanks to all for your input on this post!

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M.A. April 15, 2014 at 3:25 pm

My daughter’s elementary school does this as well for the 3rd-5th graders. The younger kids who don’t take the test are asked to be test “buddies” and give candy and other treats to the older kids (teachers and/or parents buy the treats).
So not only are the test takers getting the bad message about junk food but the kindergarteners through second graders as well.
I really don’t understand how anyone can think this is a good idea.
We didn’t get treats when we took tests when I was a kid. I would guess kids do better if receive no treats or given something nutritious if hungry before the test.
It all makes me very sad. I complain but everyone else in the school thinks it is just treats in moderation. Moderation is always the excuse I get for every treat in school. In reality, the kids are being given junk food in abundance and healthy food in moderation or not at all (at least for school snacks, treats, rewards).
No one can be surprised then when the kids grow up only wanting to eat unhealthy foods. When children are young is our chance to teach them healthy habits and get them craving nutritious foods and as society we are blowing our opportunity big time :(

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SK April 19, 2014 at 8:34 pm

As a teacher, I was really pleased that my elementary school in HISD provided the students with little baggies of cheese cubes. It looked like something the cafeteria workers cut up and bagged themselves. It’s nice to see the kids getting something other than pre-packaged, processed snacks from the school. It’s a four-hour test, so I think the snacks are really important for the kids so they don’t get too hungry.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 21, 2014 at 8:44 am

SK: This is interesting to hear! I’d love to know what goes on around our district when it comes to testing and snacks. I really only have information about the two HISD schools my own kids attend. Thank you for commenting here.

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Susan April 22, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Oh, testing snacks. Yes. Guilty, I am. But then again, I tend to fall into the extrinsic-until-it-becomes-intrinsic method of motivation. For instance, my son is going through potty training for the fifth–or is it sixth?–time. I tried all of the intrinsic motivators. They didn’t work. I started to give him an M&M each time he did “#1″ in the potty. That started to work. Over time, he did not even ask for them anymore. I will say this. As a teacher in a Title I school (whose parents will not supply healthy treats for their little ones, by the way), I tried to give my students that I tested a small treat every day during testing. I live in the South, and, in my family at least, food shows you care. And since my idea of a pep rally for testing was eschewed (shot down in an epic-fail-fire-ball-of…well…not glory), I wanted to make my students that I tested feel special. I made a word search with each of their names from puzzlemaker on Discovery Education. I made a bulletin board outside my room with their names in stars. And, yes, I gave them treats everyday. Pop Rocks to “rock” the test (about a teaspoon’s worth). Gum to “chews” the best answers on the test. Starlight peppermints for a bit of “encourage-mint” on the test. I also gave them fruit and other healthy snacks. I’m rapidly becoming of the belief that if you “vilify” a food it gives it too much of a taboo, forbidden, exciting quality. No, possibly not founded by research but by personal observation. I want my students to feel special and cared for on that week when, let’s face it, the state departments of education are using them as lab rats and sociology experiments and victims of child abuse.

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Diana April 23, 2014 at 9:31 am

Susan, it sounds like you truly want the best for your students, but please consider a few thoughts on your actions.
For your students, you are using treats as a motivator, not as a reward. There is no way candy is going to make kids do better or feel better about taking a standardized test. However, healthy food given before the test may actually help them do better and increase their stamina. Also, I feel all the hoopla, including “pep-rallies”, lucky charms, lucky shirts, etc…is unnecessary and only tells the children they need “luck” to take a test. I feel educators should pass along the confidence of “you know this material because I have taught you well and you have learned it well”. If schools want to reward kids, I suggest a “field day” after the standardized testing is over to reward the poor kids for having to sit and be quiet for so long!

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 23, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Susan: Your care and concern for your students is palpable from this comment and they’re really lucky to have such a devoted teacher. It’s wonderful that you want to make them feel special, particularly during the awful week(s) of standardized testing. (We’re in the midst of it right now in Houston – ugh.) And I realize that a teaspoon of Pop Rocks or a piece of gum is not the end of the world, or even close! :-)

But I just want to raise the issue that when you give food to students, you’re stepping outside the role of teacher and crossing into what is traditionally the domain of parents and/or the cafeteria. In other words, unless a lesson is about food per se, most parents don’t expect teachers to be feeding their children at all. And while some parents might be 100% on board with your philosophy about food and taboos, others might feel strongly that they don’t want their kids eating Pop Rocks, etc., for a variety of reasons: concern over food allergies, food dyes, sugar content, an existing obesity problem with the child, a desire to generally avoid artificial ingredients, even religious reasons if a family observes religious dietary laws. And then there’s the bigger issue of whether we set children up for larger problems when we use any food (junk food or not) as a reward. Many leading medical organizations specifically counsel against this practice. (See this post and the “white paper” linked within.)

I’m just wondering if the other great things you did — the word searches, the bulletin board with names, etc. — might not have been enough to make the kids feel special and cared for? Or if the school couldn’t supplement those ideas with something non-food related like getting to each lunch outside, or extra recess, or a free dress day (assuming you have school uniforms), etc.?

Please know that I hold teachers in the highest esteem and I’m not trying to second-guess your judgment. Just raising these ideas to get your candid thoughts about them. And thank you for commenting here.

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