In 2014, education leaders ranging from the U.S. secretary of education down to local school officials promised that kids would do better if districts adopted a federal program that provides no-cost lunches to students regardless of financial need.
It hasn’t worked out that way in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Board members in charge of the Hamilton County School System voted in the spring of 2014 to enroll schools with the highest percentage of disadvantaged students in the Community Eligibility Provision for five years, starting with the 2014-15 school year; 47 of 73 Hamilton County schools participate in CEP, said Carolyn Childs, Hamilton’s school nutrition director.
But instead of rising, test scores in Hamilton County went down this year, with the Chattanooga Times Free Press reporting that the school system experienced “less-than-expected academic progress.”
According to some of the TCAP scores available on the Tennessee Department of Education’s website:
- The number of students who fell below basic, the lowest possible score, on the Algebra I portion of the test rose from 18.8 percent to 21.9 percent.
- The number of students who fell below basic on the biology portion of the test rose from 15.3 percent to 18 percent.
- The number of students who fell below basic at the third- through eighth-grade reading level rose from 13.4 percent to 15 percent.
- The number of students who fell below basic at the third- through eighth-grade math level rose from 15.1 percent to 15.9 percent.
- The number of students who fell below basic on the English I portion of the test rose from 8.4 percent to 9.1 percent.
The idea behind the program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a simple one. As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told school superintendents, kids do better taking tests when they have a belly full of food, and that’s why, rich or poor, they need a school lunch at no cost to the students. Taxpayers pick up the tab.
Child nutrition directors at schools in Georgia and West Virginia said in a USDA testimonial that test scores shot up as soon as their schools enrolled.
Hamilton County School System officials made the same promises, said Rhonda Thurman, one of that county’s nine school board members. But test results there failed to live up to school board members’ expectations.
“I was indeed told that if the kids get better nutritional value, then the scores will be better. But if we have certain schools where 95 to 98 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunches, then why are those kids not Rhodes scholars?” Thurman asked.
“There is no excuse whatsoever for the lower academic scores. If free lunches were the ticket, then these kids should have improved. We’re just going to have to quit fooling ourselves,” Thurman said.
The Times Free Press reported that the school system did worse this year on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program’s reading, biology, and English tests. The TCAP measures students’ overall academic performance.
Students in the county also took the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System test, which measures how well teachers got information across to students.
TVAAS test results for the last school year show that Hamilton County students received the lowest possible test rating, one out of five, according to the Times Free Press.
Thurman said no one in the school system has asked why CEP didn’t improve test scores, despite promises that they would.
School board member Jonathan Welch, who supports CEP, told Tennessee Watchdog he doesn’t remember anyone promising that the program would improve overall test scores. He also said he also couldn’t account for why test scores fell, and that it’s too early to make a call on the effectiveness of the program.
“Regardless of whether this program impacts test scores, we still have to feed our children,” Welch said. “If they go hungry, then I fear they’d do even worse academically, and that would scare me more.”
School officials said last year that giving all students—rich and poor—a free meal spares poor kids from embarrassment.
The number of participating students increased from 24,533 during the last school year to 25,033 for the current school year, Childs said.
The Hamilton County School System has 43,462 students, meaning more than half the district’s students use CEP, said Brian Seay, student information systems manager.
More than 4,000 schools nationwide participate in the program, according to Duncan’s letter to the school superintendents. CEP currently has more than 8 million students participating nationwide, said USDA spokeswoman Wanda Worley.
Better in Nashville
Elsewhere in the state, Davidson County officials enrolled 85,000 students in CEP last school year.
- Six percent of students statewide got an advanced level score for Algebra I. Twenty-three point five percent of Davidson County students did the same, which was 6.1 percentage points higher than what they scored the previous school year.
- Twenty point eight percent of students statewide got an advanced level score for biology. Twelve point eight percent of Davidson County students did the same, which was 3.1 percentage points higher than what they scored the previous school year.
- Eleven percent of third-through eighth-grade students statewide got an advanced level score for reading. 8.3 percent of Davidson County students did the same, which was 0.4 percentage points lower than what they scored the previous school year.
- Twenty-four point one percent of third- through eighth-grade students statewide got an advanced level score for math . Eighteen point nine percent of Davidson County students did the same, which was 0.4 percentage points higher than what they scored the previous school year.
- Thirteen point two percent of students statewide got an advanced level score for English 1. Ten percent of Davidson County students did the same, which was 2.5 percentage points higher than what they scored the previous school year.
As for Hamilton County, Welch said CEP’s future depends on how much additional money the feds offer.
Thurman was more blunt.
“I don’t mean this to sound crude, but the Bible uses this word, so I’ll use it too. We’re just a bunch of grant whores. Anything that has a dollar attached to it, we’ll take. The school system is all about getting anything that’s free,” Thurman said.
Originally published at Watchdog.org.