By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Since school began in August, educators at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring have tried several strategies to boost scores on statewide tests. They've had practice tests and adjusted the curriculum to pinpoint individuals' weaknesses. They've encouraged kids to study hard and be prepared.
Then just before the school's 800 students were set to take the Maryland School Assessments in reading and math this week, Principal Charlotte Boucher did one more thing: She dialed up a local restaurant supply company and ordered 3,600 peppermint candies.
Along with smart teaching, careful preparation, a good night's sleep and a full stomach, peppermint candies are said to improve test performance.
Boucher said she found "millions of sites that claimed that peppermints were the perfect midpoint snack for things like testing." None of the Web sites offered scientific evidence to back up the claim, but Boucher thought it would still be a fun way to give the kids a treat.
"If anything, they'll have sweet breath," she said. "And if it provides a little boost . . . "
But it turns out -- unlike some Internet tales (the old send-Bill-Gates-an-e-mail-and-he'll-send-you-$500 shtick) -- faith in the power of peppermint might have real science behind it.
In the 1990s, researchers at University of Cincinnati found that a whiff of peppermint or muguet, a scent similar to lily of the valley, helped test subjects concentrate and do better on tasks that required sustained concentration. Joel Warm, a professor of psychology who conducted the research with his late colleague William Dember, said there is more than a bit of truth in the peppermint theory.
"Not only do you get an improvement [in focus] with peppermint, you get a change in response that affects alertness in target detection," he said.
Bryan Raudenbush, an associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, found that athletes who had a sniff of peppermint performed better than those who didn't.
Heath E. Morrison, a community superintendent in Montgomery, said he heard the peppermint spiel at a seminar on brain research about three years ago. Now, several of the middle schools in his "cluster" -- E. Brooke Lee, Sligo, Argyle and Takoma Park -- sometimes distribute the candies.
Similar tactics have been tried elsewhere. A Florida principal said he used to put oranges slices on air conditioners because the citrus scent helps keep students alert. A Philadelphia educator said some teachers paint their walls pink to calm students. Others believe that chewing gum increases brain power or that pre-test exercise offers an important energy boost (and keeps kids from squirming).
There are doubters.
"I just want to say, I don't think [peppermint] makes you smarter, but it clears your mind and makes you feel more confident," said Alex Sorto, 11, a student at Eastern Middle.
And Binetou Koite, 12, was skeptical. "I don't think the peppermints helped," she said. "I think the teachers just told us that to make us feel more comfortable."
But Imani Rucker, 11, is a believer. "The peppermints were good for me," she said. "They gave me energy and more brain power."
Richard Roberts, a senior research scientist at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., who studies test anxiety and ways to remedy it, said the power of the mind sometimes trumps the reality of science.
Still, the theory is just wild enough to prompt some gentle kidding.
"Can't talk now," said Alison Serino, principal at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring, in an e-mail. "Running out to get some peppermints."
Serino said she had heard the theory but had never tried it on her students. "If this is true," she added, "we'll start giving them out tomorrow."
Paul Skilton-Sylvester, coordinator of elementary education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, made this observation, with tongue planted firmly in cheek: "We've found that test scores go up when there's a steady diet of cheese steaks with provolone, in combination with exciting lessons that ask students to wrestle with important ideas connected to real world problems."
Students at Eastern said they think the use of peppermint should continue. That is except for Alex, who had another idea for boosting test scores: broccoli.