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Should fitness testing be mandated?

Published August 15. 2015 09:00AM

Would American 10 and 11-year-olds taking similar fitness tests fare much better? You would hope so, but if they bombed as badly as 300 Brits did in 2014, would you really be surprised?

Probably not, but either way, isn't it necessary to know for sure?

In 1998, researchers at the University of Essex in England administered a fitness test to a group of children aged 10 or 11. They repeated the test 10 years later with same-aged subjects. The second group was not only significantly heavier but also not nearly as fit as the first group.

In fact, the decline in fitness was measured at eight percent.

Such a decline might be why the researchers waited less time to test a third time. The good news: Using body mass index (BMI) as the gauge, British kids were lighter six years later and even lighter than the group weighed and measured for the first test 16 years before.

Based on that, you'd expect the 2014 fitness test results to approach or even surpass the 1998 levels, but fitness levels declined even when compared to the poor results of 2008. And this time, according to a University of Essex news release, the decline was even greater than eight percent.

To illustrate just how dramatic the downturn was, Dr. Gavin Sandercock, lead researcher for the study, offered this in the release: "The least fit child from a class of 30 we tested in 1998 . . . would be one of the five fittest in a class of the same age today."

But don't think British children are outliers. The news release gave the yearly global decline at 0.8 percent, so it's just about a certainty that the fitness level of American kids has declined, too. But we don't really know that for sure because there's no standardized test given in the United States or even in Pennsylvania for that matter.

And here's where I can't help but see hypocrisy.

Since about the turn of the century, there has been a cockamamie cry for accountability in schools and as a result testing, testing, testing, and more testing. Eighth graders in Pennsylvania, for instance, lose large portions of nine school days (11 if they are taking accelerated math) to take mandated tests and probably double the time preparing in some fashion.

The students, the teachers, and the school district are judged on those results, yet no one knows how healthy and fit the kids are who take these tests and being healthy and fit really does affect the scores. According to the government's own Presidential Youth Fitness Program website, physically fit children have higher rates of school attendance, higher levels of self-esteem, better behavior, and you guessed it! better academic performance.

Yet the state of Pennsylvania doesn't have any physical fitness guidelines. Not really. Pennsy posts standards, not specific curricula, for third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth grades.

Here's one of the standards listed under Physical Activity for Grade Nine. "Pennsylvania's public schools shall teach, challenge and support every student to realize his or her maximum potential and to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to: Analyze the effects of regular participation in moderate to vigorous physical activities in relation to adolescent health improvement [in areas such as] stress management, disease prevention, [and] weight management."

Hmm. Sounds like a ton of analyzing but not an ounce of effort let alone a test to determine the effectiveness of the effort.

Now consider those tested-to-death eighth graders again. While Pennsylvania mandates physical education classes during junior high school, none of those have to take place during eighth grade. Furthermore, the length and frequency of junior-high gym classes (as well as those in elementary and high school) whenever they do take place are determined by the local school district because those are seen by the state as "local control issues."

But the concept of local control somehow gets cast aside in the assessment of eighth grade mathematics, language arts, and science.

And for those soccer moms who think of exercise in school as simply supplementing Johnny or Susie's physical fitness because you take them to some type of soccer practice three times a week for a large portion of the year, think again.

In a 2011 Chicago Tribune article, Mary Lou Gavin, medical editor for and a pediatrician at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware states that many parents overestimate the degree to which organized sports enhances a child's fitness. Parents, she believes are "fooling themselves" because "the current guidelines for physical activity recommend 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day and vigorous physical activity at least three days a week."

To conclude, I have to address the potential contradiction created by this column. In the past, I have written that too much standardized testing sucks the life blood out of learning. Regurgitation replaces exploration. Concrete book work replaces abstract brain work.

Little long-term good results. If scores go up, however, the nearsighted need for educational accountability is appeased for one year.

But the nearsighted suddenly becomes the farsighted when standardized fitness testing is done correctly, creating personal accountability and supplying the information and the impetus to make regular exercise and health eating lifetime endeavors.

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