It’s TCAP season and at many Colorado schools that means a major effort to push healthy habits that will help kids perform their best. Think school-provided breakfast, pre-test laps around the track, deep breathing exercises, contests to encourage enough sleep, and special snacks and drinks.

But some parents and advocates worry that these efforts, while well-intentioned, have limited value if they only last as long as the spring testing window.

“It’s sad,” said Shawn St. Sauveur, a health specialist for Denver Public Schools. “Why are we so focused on it during testing but not the rest of the year?”

“It’s just sending the wrong message that testing is more important than anything else that happens in a school,” said Rainey Wikstrom, a Denver parent and wellness consultant.

To some educators, that may well be the case. With test results impacting everything from school performance ratings to teacher evaluations, it’s hard to take a chance that hunger-induced headaches or stomachaches will impair test-takers. And with strong evidence showing that exercise boosts focus, a pre-test regimen of jumping jacks, brisk walking or aerobics seems like common sense.

At some schools, it’s already part of the daily routine. At Bauder Elementary, a health and wellness-focused school in Fort Collins, universal breakfast and brain breaks occur daily whether or not it’s TCAP time.

“I’m hesitant to do anything special or unique just because of TCAP,” said Principal Brian Carpenter. “It should not be a big deal.”

Healthy snacks that aren’t so healthy

Healthy snacks during TCAP time are a common initiative in elementary and middle schools, but many parents say the snacks are often full of sugar and empty calories.

One Denver mother, who asked not to be identified, walked by her daughter’s classroom before TCAP testing, and saw a stack of pretzels and cookies on her desk along with a juice pouch. She saw the same types of snacks over five or six days of testing, and then on the last day there was an ice cream party.

Wikstrom said similar snacks popped up during testing at her daughter’s middle school, which solicited healthy snack donations from parents in an e-mail that said the effort would “make this time special for the students.”

“It’s really used as a way to motivate and manage kids’ performance,” she said.

At University Park Elementary, where her daughter used to go, parents typically put together an elaborate breakfast buffet in the hallway during testing time. While Wikstrom said the food was generally healthy, with items like fruit and yogurt parfaits and bagels with cream cheese, it often amounted to a second breakfast since many student either ate at home or in the school cafeteria first.

“Just the chronic overfeeding of kids in school is rampant,” she said. “Kids underperform when they’re overfed.”

TCAP Snack Makeover

At Denver’s Montclair School for Academics and Enrichment, parent Kristen Cooper has the job of organizing TCAP snacks. Last year when a local church donated money for the effort, she went out of her way to buy healthy foods, including organic strawberries and carrots, bananas, sunflower seeds, cheese and hard-boiled eggs. Those items were served along with bagels donated by a local Einstein Bros shop. This year, Cooper said, parents and school staff decided to bake those snack costs—about $300—into the school budget.

“You can do it healthfully,” she said. “I wish I could do away with the bagels…but you have to find that balance. At least it’s not Capri Sun or cookies or goldfish.”

Montclair is not immune to the siren song of candy during TCAP time. Cooper said students got two squares of dark chocolate–she chose a variety with 77 percent partly because it has less sugar–as part of one pre-test snack. In addition, teachers hand out small packs of “Smarties” or “Nerds” as a reward after a day of testing.

It’s hardly uncommon. Lots of schools give out candy or sponsor treat-filled events this time of year. Some schools even hand out peppermints because the scent is supposed to help kids stay alert during the test.

But some schools are making small changes for the healthier. For example, Soroco middle school and high school in the South Routt School District used to throw ice cream parties to celebrate the end of TCAPs. This year, smoothies were the centerpiece of those parties.

An extra push for exercise

Increasingly, schools are incorporating more physical activity into the average school day with classroom movement breaks, structured recess or after-school fitness activities. Even so, these efforts definitely ramp up during testing.

This image was sent out to staff at Montclair Elementary School in Denver prior to testing.
This image was sent out to staff at Montclair Elementary School in Denver prior to testing.

At Dupont Elementary School in the Adams 14 district, students got extra recess during TCAP time, plus special activities at the end of test days, including a Zumba class one day and a dance party another.

“We wanted to keep it healthy and active,” said assistant principal Don Bertolo, who noted that the only food-related activity was one day of cookie-decorating. The idea was “to get their minds off of TCAP and get…decompressed.”

In Jefferson County, students and teachers at Falcon Bluffs Middle School fan out around the building before TCAPS for a 30-minute session of relay races, jump-roping and other heart-pumping movement. The pre-test physical activity was launched last year as the school was piloting a year-long effort to increase physical activity among at-risk students in hopes of improving reading performance.

Principal Ryan West said his staff noticed big differences in students’ test-taking behavior after the movement sessions. They took more time, were more thorough and went back to double check answers.

At Montclair, teachers also do pre-TCAP exercises, ranging from Tae Bo and yoga to jogging on the track. Cooper said brain breaks are used regularly during non-testing times as well.

Eat your breakfast!

Perhaps one benefit of the wellness push during TCAP time is the chance that some efforts will take root. St. Sauveur said principals often contact him asking how they can serve breakfast in the classroom during testing weeks.

“This is the time we get our foot in the door,” he said.

While principals are given the choice to discontinue the program after testing, nine times out of 10, that doesn’t happen, said St. Sauveur.

Denise Marques, a parent of two children at Charles Hay World School in Englewood, said the school used to provide breakfast only during testing time.

“That really bothered me,” she said, adding that it didn’t make sense to focus “on healthy food and breakfast for only two weeks out of the year.”

Things changed last month when Charles Hay launched a permanent breakfast in the classroom program. Marques isn’t sure if the timing was related to testing or not, but she’s pleased nevertheless.