First Person

Editor's blog: "Never Seconds" school lunch blog

You may have heard of the 9-year-old blogging sensation Martha Payne, otherwise known as “Veg.” The Scottish primary student is documenting her school lunches with descriptive text, photos and her own rating system in her blog-gone-viral, Never Seconds. As of Thursday, her blog had attracted 1.7 million page views.

Her Food-O-Meter uses a 1-10 scale to rate her school lunch meals. She even counts mouthfuls to gauge serving size. And, she gives meals her own health ratings, again on a 1-10 scale. She notes the cost of her lunches, pretty much 2 British pounds, which is a little m more than $3. Being a kid with a sense of humor, she even documents pieces of hair found in her school lunch. So, far none… See, there is a reason for those hairnets!

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, an advocate for healthy school lunches, helped Martha become famous in her own right when he sent her an autographed book with the words, “Great work, clever girl. Keep it up.” Being an astute blogger, she immediately posted a photo of his inscription.

Mini Mrs. Q

Martha is not the first person to do this, of course. Mom and teacher Mrs. Q, aka Sarah Wu, got lots of attention for her blog, Fed Up With Lunch, based on her personal pledge in 2010 to each lunch with her kids at school every day.

Wu, too, relied on the power of images and description to garner attention and demand changes in the nation’s school lunch program. Slowly but surely, changes are happening in school cafeterias across the good ‘ol U.S. of A., thanks to new federal school lunch guidelines demanding more whole grains and fruits and veggies and less fats and sugars. (Let’s just not talk about pizza being counted as a vegetable…)

What’s cool about Martha’s blog is that kids from around the globe are sharing their own stories about school lunch. What I find striking is how controlled the portions seem to be compared to American school lunches. In some cases, these lunches are downright skimpy. And Japanese lunches, in particular, look delicious and nutritious with all that rice, fish and vegetables.

What’s in a Scottish school lunch

As for Scottish lunches, at least those served at the Lochgilphead Primary in Argyll, some look appetizing; others rival the fried, starchy fare often seen in American school cafeterias. Yesterday, Martha wrote, she chose the gammon steak (looks like ham to me) with pineapple slices on it, carrot sticks, red pepper slices, exactly two snow peas, some boiled potatoes, and cake with cream for dessert.

“I didn’t finish my gammon because I was unsure about the outside bits which were dark. You can tell now I have a dislike of black food!”

She gave the meal an 8 on her Food-O-Meter, but a 6 for health. Apparently, at her school, you only get access to fruit if you eat your entire meal first, or at least that’s what the kids believe to be true. School officials say students have always been allowed seconds when it comes to fruits and veggies.

Also interesting at her school, students get colored rubber wrist bands in the morning to indicate their noon meal choice – probably so they can’t change their minds later and to ensure there is enough food to go around. Martha’s early blog posts one month ago lamented small servings.

No fair! Fins good at school, and lunch

Some Finnish students weighed in on her blog this week. Not only to Fins rule the world in terms of public education, apparently all Finnish students also get free lunch every day, and, as much food as they want, too! Although, I will say the stew pictured in this photo, supposedly from a Finnish student, doesn’t look all that appetizing with chopped up sausage (or are they hotdog bits?) in it. But there is also the slice of brown bread, a glass of white milk and cucumber slices.

Then there’s a very healthy looking lunch from a student in Glenview, Ill. Yea, USA! Some spaghetti with sauce, a slice of garlic bread, a bag of carrots, a dish of fresh fruit, steamed broccoli and white milk.

What does Veg rank a 10? A meal consisting of chicken curry, broccoli, bread, ice cream and shortbread. However, this perfect 10 rates only a 7 for health.

“The shortbread is really nice because it’s covered in sugar,” Martha writes.

Let’s not forget she’s a kid, after all.

I shared a link to Martha’s blog with my 9-year-old daughter, who refuses to eat the healthy lunches offered in her Boulder Valley school, thinking this could turn into some kind of cool cross cultural connection that also promoted healthy food choices. All my daughter said was, “No fair, they serve Sprite,” after seeing one  of Martha’s school lunch photos.

Maybe your child is a budding foodie or culinary activist. If that’s the case, encourage him or her to submit a photo, ratings and description of our Colorado school lunches to Payne at If it’s published, let us know.


First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.