New York City public schools –¬†A dramatic rise in test scores

In the spring of 1979, New York City’s public schools ranked in the 39th percentile on standardized California Achievement Test scores given nationwide. That means that 61 percent of the nation’s public schools scored higher. They had been in the lower half of the country for years. However, for a few years in the 1980s, these same 803 schools ranked in the upper half of the nation’s schools. They went from 11% below the national average to 5% above it. What happened?

In the fall of 1979, the city’s Board of Education decided to make some changes in their lunch and breakfast program. They ordered a reduction in sugar (and this would reduce dependence on prepackaged foods), and they banned two artificial food colorings. In the next set of achievement tests the schools averaged in the 47th percentile – an increase five times larger than any other documented increase. Dr. Elizabeth Cagan, Chief Administrator of the Office of School Food and Nutrition of the New York City Board of Education, and researcher Dr. Stephen Schoenthaler, studied the changes occurring during these years.


As more changes were made, bringing school lunch and breakfast programs in line with “stage two” of the Feingold¬†diet, eliminating artificial flavoring and coloring, as well as the preservatives BHA and BHT – school scores rose to the 55th percentile. This was a total rise of almost 16%, in a cohort of over a million children. Moreover, when the changes were analyzed, a dramatic difference was found in the ratio of change to amount of food eaten at school. Before these changes, the more school meals the children ate, the worse their scores. After the changes, this reversed: the more school meals the children ate, the better they did academically.

And that is not all – when Dr. Schoenthaler looked at which children had made such dramatic changes that the entire school system improved, he found that it was not uniform. Not all children made a 16% improvement. Rather, the lowest achievers improved the most. In 1979, before the Board implemented the dietary changes, 12.4% of the one million students in New York City schools were performing two

Student filling out answers to a test with a pencil.

or more grades below the proper level. These were the “learning disabled” and “repeat failure” children. But the end of 1983, only 4.9% of children were in that category. In other words, 7.5% of a million children – 75,000 children – were no longer “learning disabled” low-achievers but had become able to perform at the level normal for their age. These were the children that no other efforts had helped. No other hypothesis fits: all changes were related to the dietary