TRIBUNE PHOTOS BY LAURA DICKINSON - Templeton High School students do curls at the gym as part of physical fitness training. Because of new legislation, the students will have to take an additional year of P. E. if they do not pass state-set standards.
By Deb Kollars | San Luis Obispo Tribune
05/26/2008 — In California public schools, children have been tested for physical fitness for many years. If they could do the push-ups and run a quick mile — great. If not—no big deal.
This spring, that’s changing for many of the half-million ninth-graders across the state. For the first time, high school freshmen in many districts must pass five of six fitness exams or face the possibility of extra years in physical education classes.
In gym after gym, the pressure is on. Teens are being pressed to run, reach, push, stretch and pull like their bodies and their futures depend on it.
“OK, who wants to try the push-ups?” Cici Robinson called out to her freshman physical education class at El Camino High School near Sacramento recently.
“Girls, to qualify, you need to do at least seven. If you do more than 15, you’re above the standard.”
Two boys and a girl took their places on the gym floor. A voice on a recording set the pace: “Down. Up. One. Down. Up. Two …”
Twenty counts later, then 25, then 26, the three students called it quits. All had shown they were above or within the “healthy fitness zone” for upper body strength for students their age and gender.
“Nice job,” Robinson said. “Who’s next?”
For Robinson and P. E. teachers across the state, it has been a year of intense practice and pushing to get kids ready for this spring’s round of fitness testing. Many have welcomed the challenge, which comes against the backdrop of rising rates of obesity and the price of diabetes, heart disease and other health problems in people’s lives.
“It’s a new year for physical education,” said Nancy Carr, interim physical education consultant for the California Department of Education. “California students are being asked to work on becoming physically fit for life.”
Doesn’t affect graduation
The state has long required students in grades five, seven and nine to be tested in six major fitness areas: aerobic capacity, body fat measurements, abdominal strength and endurance, trunk strength and flexibility, upper body strength and endurance, and overall flexibility.
Some of the categories have several choices of tests, while others offer one way to pass.
Results get reported every year, celebrated when they are good, and set aside as a fact when they are not.
Under legislation taking effect this school year by Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, many freshmen now must pass five of the six fitness tests this spring or face a significant new consequence: Those who fail must take physical education again as sophomores, where they will face the same testing hurdles. Each year that they continue to fail two or more tests means another year of P. E.
The testing results do not affect students’ ability to graduate, Torlakson said. Ninthgraders who pass five or six tests still must take another year of P. E., but in many districts they will have a choice of which year they enroll.
“We want our students to be healthier. That’s the whole goal,” Torlakson said, noting that educators have found a correlation between health and fitness and a student’s ability to learn well.
Not all districts must comply because of differences in the way they exempt certain students from physical education.
But many school systems are embracing the new legislation with stopwatches, clipboards, weight scales and big doses of encouragement. Among them are San Juan Unified and Elk Grove Unified in the Sacramento area.
In both districts, about 67 percent of ninth-graders last year met the five-out-of-six passing rate. District representatives expect that number to rise this spring because the tests have been such a big focus this year.
“The message is out how serious this is,” said Joanne Clark, retired physical education specialist in Elk Grove Unified, which has worked aggressively to build a strong P. E. program across all grades. “Students’ wellness is extremely important for the quality of their life.”
Robinson agreed. “I’ve been telling my students from the beginning of the year that this year it counts,” Robinson said. “I put it out there as early as I could so they would take it seriously. And I have seen a lot of improvement.”
Students are supportive
In California, districts typically require just two years of P. E. to graduate. They do so backed by a tangle of laws contained in the California Education Code.
Under the code, students are to be enrolled in physical education all four years of high school, said Carrie Strong- Thompson, a consultant with the state Department of Education. But in an odd dichotomy, the code requires only two years of P. E. to graduate.
“There’s a disconnect,” Strong-Thompson said. The law offers several ways in which districts can “exempt” students from the four-year requirement, and many do so, she said. The state doesn’t track exemption patterns.
Under the new Torlakson legislation, some students could face as many as four years of physical education. It has some students concerned about being in a course they don’t enjoy and missing out on other electives.
Others, however, have found themselves thinking it might not be a bad idea.
Oscar Luna is a 14-year-old in Robinson’s class at El Camino. When he first heard about the new requirement, he was worried. He is 5-foot-11, and quick to acknowledge he is heavier than is healthy.
As Luna learned about the six tests and the minimum proficiencies, he realized he would have a tougher journey than some of his peers: “I know I can’t pass the body weight test,” he said. “That means I have to pass all the other five.”
Luna passed a stretching test. And he is sure he can do the minimum number of pushups when his turn comes. The problem, he said, is that he cannot run a mile. He is pinning his hopes on passing an optional walking test—but also bracing for the possibility he will not pass five tests.
In recent weeks, he has become philosophical about possibly spending an extra year or two in physical education.
“I think I actually may need more P. E. than most people,” he said. “It probably would be good for me.”
Not all educators find the state’s fitness exams a great measure for all students. To Brian Prahl, a longtime P. E. teacher in Elk Grove Unified, some tests are too easy, while the body composition tests can unfairly penalize athletes with lots of muscles.
Op-Ed By Ramona Armijo-Sloan and Jennifer Finnerty | Ventura County Star
Friday, May 23, 2008 — With our nation experiencing one of the largest obesity epidemics in history, the investment in physical education in schools is essential. One of the biggest problems people have is understanding the difference and importance of P.E. for students compared with after-school physical activity or athletics.
Although all are important, there is a difference. P.E. provides "curriculum-based instruction," while after-school physical activity or athletics do not. P.E. should be an important component of a comprehensive education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
According to Nancy Carr of the California Department of Education, physical "education" is a phenomenon unique to the U.S. It is unique because it is intended to teach students how to be fit for life. It's not about playing games; it doesn't solely focus on teaching students to be a star athlete; it doesn't just focus on having physical activity after school; P.E. is about instructing students on skill development to build student learning related to the California P.E. Content Standards.
California P.E. Content Standards are designed to instruct students on motor skills, movement and performance strategies for fitness and health. These strategies will teach students how to demonstrate and apply the learning and performance of physical activity.
Qualified P.E. teachers hold a single subject credential authorizing instruction in P.E. According to Raymond Armijo Jr., a credentialed P.E. teacher and graduate of California State University, Fullerton, "Part of preparing children to have lifelong health skills includes providing P.E. instruction with nutrition education." He also reminds us of the link between the "healthy body and sound mind" principle. When students actively participate in P.E., they are healthier, have better attendance in school, better academic skills and a positive attitude.
There are five California public school P.E. Content Standards required in grades K-8 and three standards requiring P.E. in grades 9-12. According to California Education Code (51210), P.E. is the only subject requiring 200 minutes for every 10 consecutive school days for grades 1-6 and 400 minutes for every 10 consecutive school days for grades 7-12. Elementary school districts with grades 1-8 require a minimum of 200 minutes for every 10 consecutive days.
Barriers to quality elementary P.E. include funding, lack of time, facility use and content knowledge by trained teachers, support from administration, school culture, parents and community.
From the public-health perspective, Robert Levin, M.D., medical director for the Ventura County Public Health Department, supports the need for P.E. in schools and the promotion of physical activity for children throughout the day. Public Health supports Ventura County schools through the Coordinated School Health Institute, in partnership with the American Cancer Society. Through the Network for a Healthy California Project, Public Health's Power Play! Program is coordinated by JoAnn Torres, M.A., who quotes FITNESSGRAM statistics that "over one-third of children on the Gold Coast are unfit and over one-quarter are obese." The Power Play! Program provides qualifying low-income schools with free nutrition education and physical activity curriculum and resources for teachers in grades 4-5 and Community Youth Organizations who work with youth ages 9-11.
According to Dr. Levin, kids who play hard every day may be making their brains, as well as their bodies, stronger. Researchers have found that children who exercise on a regular basis have more neural activity in the frontal areas of their brains. This serves as evidence that children who are physically active may be better able to organize schoolwork, do class projects and learn mathematics.
— Ramona Armijo-Sloan, Ph.D., (abd), M.P.H is with Ventura County Public Health. Jennifer Finnerty is with the American Cancer Society. Both are supporters of Summerfest and Coordinated School Health.