By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
KID FITNESS--Morris Finestone, physical education chair at Patrick Henry Middle school in Granada Hills, watches students work out on "Dance, Dance Revolution" in the fitness center at the school. The equipment is part of other work out machines at the school. (Photo by David Crane/Staff)
Statewide, roughly one in three students passed all of the California Physical Fitness tests, which measure the youngsters' ability to run and perform chin-ups and crunches, officials said.
Results show that 25 percent of Los Angeles Unified students passed the tests in 2008-09 compared with 23 percent a year earlier. Statewide, the scores ticked up from 33 to 34 percent.
Educators, however, were unimpressed by the improvement.
"The percentage of students statewide that are not even minimally fit remains unacceptably high," State Superintendent Jack O'Connell O'Connell said during a news conference to announce the results.
"As we know, these children not only put their own health at risk but we also know that students who eat well and stay in shape perform better in school and have fewer behavior problems."
The test was administered to 1.3 million fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders, measuring their performance in six areas including aerobic capacity, body composition and physical strength.
Chad Fenwick, LAUSD's adviser for physical education, said students are considered active and healthy if they meet five of the six criteria. There is some leeway, he said, since genetics can influence the strength and body composition of some children.
In Los Angeles Unified, 51 percent of the students tested met five of six criteria.
Still, Fenwick said the district continues to work toward all students passing all elements of the exam.
"These are all health-related tests that help us identify students who are at risk for certain diseases," Fenwick said.
For example, aerobic stamina is a good indicator of heart health; poor physical strength can signal a risk of bone conditions like osteoporosis; and childhood obesity translates to a 70 to 80 percent chance of being obese as an adult.
Fenwick said results of these tests are being carefully analyzed as the district, like the nation, focuses on the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. Experts predict that 20 percent of America's children will be considered obese by next year.
Those rates can be higher in urban areas - where there is less access to green space and more lower-income families rely on inexpensive processed foods for their meals - leading to more risk for diabetes and high blood pressure.
Meanwhile state budget cuts to education have also severely cut funding to P.E. programs at local schools. Most elementary schools don't have any physical education teachers or designated class time. At the middle and high school levels, some physical education classes can have as many as 70 students.
The district has launched several initiatives so solve these problems, such as pursuing grants and other funding to improve physical education programs.
Beyond addressing the overall health of students, state and local educators believe more physical activity could help them bridge the academic achievement gap.
Research shows that physical fitness and proper nutrition is linked to better academic achievement.
At Kentwood Elementary in Los Angeles, where Superintendent O'Connell held his news conference, nearly 63 percent of the fifth-graders tested passed all six of the state's criteria.
That school also boasts a score of 859 points on the state's Academic Performance Index out of a possible 1,000. The goal for all schools is 800 points.
P.E. grants have been put to good use at Patrick Henry Middle School in Granada Hills, which boasts a state-of-the-art gym and above-average results on the state's activity test.
"We are very strict on how we run our P.E. program," Principal Mike Bennett said. "It's a class. Kids have to dress every day. Each grade has different standards and we are on our kids' case so that they can be successful."
Bennett credited his school's attention on physical fitness with helping students reach an API score of 769 last year, well above the average for LAUSD middle schools.
While educators want to see their kids do better on academic tests, some also stressed the need for more before- and after-school activities to students have more opportunities run and play.
"Many of our kids cannot go outside and play because it is not safe in their neighborhoods. And with two working parents, there is no time for sports or going to the park," said Leah Perrotti, principal of Langdon Avenue Elementary in North Hills.
"If they don't get the activity here then they don't get it anywhere."
2008-09 California Physical Fitness Report
LAUSD Summary of Results