Fewer than one-third of California students were able to pass all six areas of a statewide physical fitness test last year. 1.34 million students in the fifth, seventh and ninth grades took the test and scores declines in all three grades, after improving steadily since 2006. While state education department consultant Linda Hooper said one reason for the decline is that two of the test’s six sections, for measuring aerobic capacity and body fat, are now using more accurate measurements, cutbacks to physical education and sports programs throughout California — resulting in fewer PE teachers — are taking their toll on the physical fitness of California children.
For a student to score in what state officials call a “healthy fitness zone,” a ninth-grade male who is 5 feet 6 and weighs 150 pounds has to be able to run a mile in nine minutes, do at least 16 push-ups and at least 24 curl-ups. Students’s body fat and flexibility were also measured. Last year, only about 25% of fifth-graders passed all six sections; 32% of seventh-graders and 36.8% of ninth-graders passed.
Students in Los Angeles, the state’s largest school district, scored slightly worse than average after showing improvements in previous years: While only 26% of ninth-graders passed five of the fitness test’s six sections in 2004, 49.2% did this year but such scores are likely to decline. A district PE advisor, Chad Fenwick, noted that Los Angeles students have often had lower scores on the test due to the district’s higher percentage of students from low-income backgrounds, which have been correlated with lower fitness levels.
Moreover, 75% of 1,600 members of the California State PTA polled said that the PE and sports programs in their districts had either been eliminated or reduced. Fenwick says that, due to staff cutbacks, PE classes in LA high schools now have as many as 80 students. Indeed, a 2010 survey by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that fewer than 25 percent of children have at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a former cross country coach, has started a statewide campaign, Team California for Healthy Kids, to urge schools to address promote fitness and healthy eating among students. The campaign encourages schools to apply for grants for salad bars, to create partnerships with farmers markets and to integrate physical activity into instruction and other activities.
I suspect that the fitness scores for students in special education are even lower. PE is too often an afterthought for students with disabilities, 51 %of whom are overweight according to an analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey:
While about 81 percent of children with limitations on their physical activity were overweight, so were 44 percent of children with attention deficit disorder, 67 percent of the teens with autism spectrum disorder, and 86 percent of the teens with Down syndrome.
Even those who participate in athletics through Special Olympics have significant rates of obesity: 16.1% of athletes screened by the organization are overweight and 32.9% are obese. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research has found that physical activity is 4.5 times lower for children with disabilities than for child without them.
PE for all kids is too often considered of secondary importance and as taking time away from academics (and from preparing for standardized testing). But more and more, educators, parents and others are pointing out that a a healthy mind and a healthy body do indeed coexist; that a mens sans (healthy mind) resides in a corpore sano (health body). The decline in the fitness of California students should be a wake-up call and a stark reminder that PE is an essential part of every student’s education.
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