Carbs or protein? Bright colors or earth tones? Hard rock or classical?
Test-prep company Peterson's says it plans go beyond drilling students in the three Rs, starting what it's calling a testing laboratory to see whether students gain any edge on the SAT from the little things - the choice of pre-exam meal, the hue of their clothes, the music they hear on the drive to the test.
What the Princeton, N.J.-based company envisions is less of a physical lab - no guinea pig students taking tests while white-coated scientists make notes behind one-way glass - than a kind of research-commissioning think tank. It has already retained fashion color expert Pat Tunsky and perfume-industry scent sage Joachim Mensing for the project, to be announced Tuesday.
In the end, Peterson's says, it's mainly aiming to inject some fun into the stressful standardized test process - and if scores creep up a few points, so much the better.
"We don't want people to think they really will raise their scores 100 points if they wear the right color," said Jessica Rohm, vice president of communications for Thomson Learning, Peterson's parent company. But "just taking the edge off by bringing in some fun things associated with testing I think will raise their scores a little."
Critics of standardized testing seem more likely to view the project as this week's sign of the apocalypse. Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the group FairTest, says the effort "does show how out of control the testing craze is in this country." But he acknowledges other research has, indeed, shown that things like a good breakfast can affect test scores.
"Though it'll do nothing to limit the testing craze, it'll be good to have some hard evidence about what really works," he said.
The College Board, the organization that owns the SAT, did not respond to a request for comment.
Rohm said that, as the research results start to come in, Peterson's will distribute much of the information freely to students on printed cards, and it will also be available on Peterson's Web site.
Some of the research is already under way. A nutritionist has developed guidelines for a long-term diet heavy on vitamin B6, plus folate, to help build red blood cells that carry oxygen to the brain and vitamin C to help the body cope with stress. A pasta dinner the night before is suggested, as is avoiding candy and caffeine.
If that all sounds like common sense, Peterson's thinks it can do more. It's working with Tunsky, famous in the fashion world for helping clients figure out the next hot color, on a wardrobe project. A fitness expert will demonstrate stretches and exercises at a guidance counselors convention this fall, and a mobile laboratory will visit high schools to advise students on what scents, colors and sounds might work best for them.
Franklin Chang, a guidance counselor at Lane Technical College Prep High School in Chicago, said that, for better or worse, students do worry about these things.
"I personally think it doesn't have much impact whether you stop eating chocolate or wear white, but students when it comes to high-stakes testing do want to cover all the bases," he said.
He expects students and parents to press him in the fall for test-taking tips, and he'll give the same advice as always.
"What I usually tell my students is don't follow any specific fad or research, but do the same things they'd do on any test," he said. "Have a good, balanced breakfast, get a good night's sleep, preferably eight hours, get to the test center early, and be prepared with extra pencils."
By Justin Pope