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Too Many Students Fail Fitness Test

In the best showing at local schools, only a little more than half pass all six measures. Statewide, it's less than a third. But changes are coming.

Do you remember taking the state fitness test when you were a kid? I remember it vividly and most people I have asked do, too.

My most distinct memory was the flexed arm hang. I remember being mad because the boys got to do pull-ups and the girls had to do the flexed arm hang and resultant embarrassing shaking on the bar that we were trying to keep our chins above.  Although the tests haven’t changed much, the results and the way results are analyzed have.

Tom Torlakson, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, announced the dismal results last week that less than one third of California’s children passed all six measures of the Fitnessgram test. Torlakson also announced that he was forming a statewide campaign to improve the health and fitness of California’s schoolchildren called Team California for Healthy Kids Campaign.

“Nothing is more important than the health of our children, and today's results show that many of them need a helping hand to get fit and stay in shape," he said. With this campaign, Torlakson, a former track and cross-country coach and high-school science teacher, plans to form partnerships that would link schools with community leaders and athletes to “help students adopt the health habits that will help them succeed in the classroom today – and help them stay healthy over a lifetime," he said.

Schools started administering physical fitness tests in 1976. The 2010 physical fitness results for schools, school districts, counties, and the state are available on the CDE Web page at PFT Results - Physical Fitness Testing (PFT). To score in the Healthy Fitness Zone (HFZ), the test requires, for example, that a ninth grade male, who would be about 15 years old, run a mile within nine minutes, perform a minimum of 16 push-ups and 24 curl-ups. The 2009-10 test scores show that in California, only 28.7 percent of the students in grade five, 34.6 percent in grade seven, and 38.5 percent in grade nine were in the fitness zone for all six areas.

The fitness news wasn’t great for our local schools. Students in Long Beach Unified showed similar results to those in the state: Grade 5 had 36.3 percent of students score 6 out of 6 in the fitness zone category, grade 7 was 36% and 39.6% of ninth graders had perfect scores.

For the Belmont Shore and Naples schools there were some differences to note. Lowell Elementary and Rogers Middle schools scored much higher than the district averages.  More than half (56.4%) of last year’s Lowell fifth graders passed all six measures while Naples Elementary had a 28.6% passing rate for all six measures. Rogers Middle School seventh graders scored 52.2% while 34.7% of Wilson’s ninth graders passed all six standards.

The purpose of fitness testing is to have measures that reflect the health of our children.  Some of the test measures have a much more direct link to health than others. While it is important to have good strength and flexibility, it is not as linked to health as body composition and aerobic fitness. Aerobic fitness and body composition are the most important measures of health because they are connected to the risk of metabolic syndrome which includes a collection of risk factors associated with increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Changes for Next Year

The Fitnessgram test will be making some changes next year. For example, there will be three rather than the current two zones based on potential risks for health problems. Instead of meeting or not meeting the Healthy Fitness Zone, in the new test, a person that is not in the fitness zone for a particular test will be in the High Risk or Low Risk group.

The new Fitnessgram measurements will also use a combination of body composition (based on body mass index) and aerobic endurance (based on the Pacer or the mile) to come up with an aerobic capacity score.  The researchers involved in writing the test measurements stressed the importance of understanding that the Fitness Gram is based on criterion reference scores which connect scores to chances of health risk. The Healthy Fitness Zone is determined by what is estimated to be healthy, or at-risk, rather that using the percentiles based on all students measured as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does.  At a national health and physical education conference in San Diego this week, researchers said that they would like the CDC to change its system to match the Fitness Gram, but added that it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

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