Many Philadelphia public school principals appear to push harder to have their students eat breakfast in school during testing periods - when principals' performance is being judged - than during the rest of the year, child advocates say.

A Public Citizens for Children and Youth survey last week of 35 city elementary schools (20 percent of the total of 177) showed that 63 percent of the schools changed their policy to make sure kids ate breakfast.

During the week, students were taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test, which ends for most schools today.

Principals and teachers face intense pressure from the school district's central administration for students to perform well on the tests, which measure academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

All students in Philadelphia public schools, regardless of income, are eligible for free breakfasts. But of the 165,000 district students, only about 51,000 typically take advantage, district figures show.

Those numbers seem to shoot up during test season, said Jonathan Stein, a lawyer with Community Legal Services long involved in school feeding programs:

"Every year during testing time, principals wake up and decide to push breakfast. It's a recurring phenomenon. The district gets flooded with calls from principals making sure their schools will get breakfasts."

Michael Masch, the district's chief business officer, doesn't dispute this. "There is evidence that principals make breakfast a priority during testing," he said, acknowledging, "If we can do it during testing, we ought to be able to do it all the time."

Asked whether principals were looking out for themselves by compelling students to eat breakfast during tests that reflect principals' performance, Masch said he didn't know and refused to speculate.

He added that the district was committed to having as many students as possible eat breakfast, but that "scheduling and physical-plant complications" made it hard for administrators to impose a "one-size-fits-all" mandate for breakfast compliance.

District spokeswoman Felecia Ward said that decisions on how breakfast is served or how hard it's pushed were up to individual principals, as "kings of their fiefdoms."

She further pointed out that while breakfast participation in the schools is low, it is 9 percent higher than last year, with 4,500 more breakfasts served.

Anita Urofsky, principal of Lawton Elementary School in the Northeast, said that during testing, her colleagues "push citywide to make sure everybody has breakfast. We do it specifically during testing."

Kathy Fisher, a PCCY associate who conducted the survey, added, "It's clear the schools make more of an effort to provide breakfast during testing times than other times. Why should that be different than any other day?"

Most of the schools in the PCCY survey indicated that during testing time last week, breakfast was served in classrooms during the first period of the day.

The rest of the year, those schools serve breakfast in the cafeteria, before classes begin, the survey said.

Nationwide, schools that serve breakfast during first period have higher breakfast participation, according to the Food Research Action Center, a Washington nonprofit.

And study after study has demonstrated that children who eat breakfast perform better in school and have fewer behavioral and attendance problems.

"To say during testing we go out of our way to feed you breakfast is a little bit hypocritical and missing the point," said Anita Duke, principal of Wright Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion.

"To just do it during testing doesn't make any sense."

Duke said that she did not change her policy during testing, and that breakfast was served in her cafeteria every morning before the first bell.

Many principals oppose first-period feeding because, they say, it cuts into teaching time and could potentially cause a pest problem in the classroom from dropped food, Urofsky and Duke said.

But Tonya Riggins, director of Food Services for Newark Public Schools - the system with one of the highest student-breakfast participation rates in the nation - said those problems could be overcome.

"Students finish eating in 10 minutes of the first class, while attendance is being taken," she said. When the kids are done, teachers put the garbage in non-leak bags and place the bags in the hall for custodial collection.

"Could the district do more to support breakfast year-round?" asked Fisher. "Yes. The district should hold principals more accountable for reaching a higher percentage of children. I'm not sure all principals are convinced of the importance of breakfast."

Indeed, according to a school district Division of Food Services analysis obtained by The Inquirer, there is a huge disparity between schools on breakfast. In some schools, participation is as low as 18 percent, while in others, it's around 98 percent. Some schools showed as much as a 50 percent increase in breakfast participation between 2007 and 2008, while others decreased by 20 percent.

"The disparities are because of different personal philosophies of the principals," Duke of Wright Elementary said.

Other schools share the district's emphasis on breakfast during testing.

Among them are some Catholic schools, according to Anne Ayella of the Nutritional Development Service, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Not everyone is eligible for free breakfast in Catholic schools. But regardless, all children get free breakfast during the parochial school equivalent of state testing, Ayella said.

"It would be great if they gave them breakfast year-round," Ayella added.

The policy of stressing breakfast participation during testing makes little sense to childhood-nutrition expert Mariana Chilton, a professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health.

"It's not even grounded in any kind of scientific evidence," Chilton said. "When you feed kids breakfast on test day, all you're doing is making them more alert to look at the test and realize what they don't know.

"If they want children to do well on tests, they must feed them breakfast throughout the entire school year."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.