Throughout history, parents have fought to get their children an education because they want them to grow into successful, functional adults. While in school, a child will learn how to write, how to solve equations and, in a perfect world, how to live a healthy and active life. Unfortunately, California’s public education system’s past attempts to provide that health education have been shaky at best.
California Governor Gavin Newsom seems to agree. In fact, he has gone so far as to propose a three year suspension on all physical fitness testing. Newsom’s reasoning behind this halt is undeniably solid. He fears that current mandatory physical fitness testing, which includes a Body Mass Index (BMI) screening that only considers male or female options, is discriminatory against non-binary individuals. Furthermore, he argues that the tests are inherently biased against students with disabilities, and that the public nature of the testing promotes the bullying of children who may not perform as well as their peers.
Gov. Newsom’s reasoning is nuanced and reasonable. The three year halt he proposed is meant to give the California Department of Education time to revise the tests so they can be better implemented in the future.This is where Newsom’s proposal falls short. Fitness testing for grade school and middle school children is fundamentally flawed from the very beginning. Ideally, fitness testing would not only be stopped permanently, but the way physical education (PE) classes are run would be revised entirely.
When a student takes any other exam, the test results are private and the student’s peers will never know their results unless said student chooses to share them. Conversely, the fitness tests taken during a student’s PE period are most often performed in groups of other students. A student struggling with the FITNESSGRAM pacer test, for instance, has no way of hiding their results. Their peers will know how well the student performed whether the student likes it or not. This can lead to bullying and, in turn, discourage the student from participating in physical activity later on.
At the end of the day, if a student has an alarming health concern, the conversation should take place behind closed doors with the child’s parents and the school nurse. The other children in the school yard have only one use for such information — it makes for good ammunition when picking on others.
Compounding that, many components of the tests fail to provide an accurate estimate of a student’s overall health and well-being. A student’s ability to perform a perfect pushup or touch their hands together behind their back is not a particularly useful measure of how healthy the student is currently, nor is it an accurate predictor of how healthy they will be in the future.
Moreover, as Gov. Newsom noted, the use of BMI in testing is fundamentally flawed. According to the current formula, people with a BMI between 18.5 and 25 are of a normal weight, those between 25 and 30 are overweight and those with a BMI over 30 are obese.
Most embarrassingly, the formula, which takes an individual’s weight and divides it by their height squared, is incredibly short sighted. This formula results in one’s weight being divided by too much in shorter children and by too little in taller children, which leads to taller children being told they are more overweight than they actually are and shorter children being told they are thinner than is the case. A formula so flawed should have no place in informing a child of their fitness levels.
Still, many worry about the health of their children, and reasonably so. These fitness tests have been in use for decades now, and parents who are concerned with their child’s development are inclined to defer to them. Many claim that the tests are conducted in the interest of making sure children stay active and fit. They give children a tangible reason to strive to improve. Like the proverbial sword of Damocles, the fitness test hangs high above their heads, swinging ever so slightly lower as the year goes on until the test is finally upon them. If the child wants to do well, they need to get in shape.
Of course, this is all well and good until one considers the fact that these tests tend to have just the opposite effect.There is little evidence to suggest that these tests promote healthy behaviors. In actuality, the tests are more likely to harm a student’s desire to be active than encourage physical growth. Forced public fitness testing can be uncomfortable and embarrassing for some children, leading them to dread the inevitable test date. Poor test scores, which can be inaccurate and misleading, also serve to demotivate children to do better in the future, instead teaching children that they are doomed to an unhealthy and unhappy future.
These issues don’t end when the last student completes their final sit up and it’s time to go back inside for math. The potential for bullying and prevalence of discouragement are woven into the way gym class is run as a whole, suggesting that the entire PE system is flawed and requires revision if there is any hope of providing children with proper physical education.
It is a secret to no one that children will fight tooth and nail to avoid activities they don’t want to participate in. If the goal is to encourage kids to be healthy, fitness must be made fun. Unfortunately, gym class can all too often be just the opposite. In most districts, PE is supervised by coaches, whose passions lay in the actual sport, not education.
The severe, judgemental comments coaches are prone to making may be appropriate in certain settings — say, when a sports team is training to take on a rival school — but mean spirited comments from old men in tight shorts are rarely encouraging to the average child, especially if the child doesn’t have a natural interest in physical activity. Highly trained physical education teachers should instead fill these roles, and coaches should not be forced to teach if that isn’t their primary interest. They should be allowed to do what they do best: coach sports.
To ensure students are showing up for class, PE should remain mandatory, but it should be taken pass or fail. A child’s GPA should not be contingent on how quickly they can run a mile. Furthermore, if funding permits, students would ideally have a choice between different forms of exercise. Forcing a child who hates playing football to play football will only cement the idea that sports, and by extension physical activity, is painful and boring in their minds.
Not every kid is born eager to go out and shoot hoops, but physical fitness can be encouraged. To do so, the school system must meet the children where they stand. Physical fitness tests serve as the first major obstacle. It may take a while to implement these changes, but Gov. Newsom is trying to push California in the right direction. With proper revision to PE standards, Californian students may see better health outcomes soon.