FITNESS TESTING AT THE ELEMENTARY LEVEL:
This year more so than any other, I have found myself reflecting on everything I do within my teaching in an attempt to further my growth and development as a physical educator. Part of that reflection process has led to me question a lot of current, wide-spread practices within the discipline of elementary physical education. In a time of extreme uncertainty in the education profession, it is imperative that physical education teachers constantly reflect and question the purpose of everything that we do in order to stay relevant within the educational landscape and do what is best for our students. It turns out that I was not alone in this thought. Many colleagues within my “professional learning network,” on social media were doing a lot of reflecting/questioning of their own. One particular area of extensive debate that I have often found myself involved in both in person and on Twitter, revolves around the appropriateness of fitness testing at the elementary level in physical education. These are the thoughts that inspired this blog.
Before I begin sharing my concerns, I should let you know the FitnessGram requirements that are in place within my school district. As a PE teacher at the elementary level in my district in Maryland, I am responsible for doing fitness testing with all of our 4th and 5th grade students once each year in the fall. The tests that are currently required to be administered are the PACER, sit and reach, push up, curl up, height and weight and trunk lift. I am required to input all students’ scores into the web-based platform that FitnessGram has and I must print out paper copies of all students’ fitness reports to send home to parents.
All FitnessGram tests that I do with my students meet or exceed the standards set forth in the FitnessGram Test Administration Manual. For the push up test, I myself watch 2 students at a time while performing their movements and make note of any mistakes. I administer the curl up test and the sit and reach test in the exact same way. For the PACER, I have students pair up like it suggests in the manual. One partner is running while the other is recording successful laps/misses for this person. For the trunk lift test, I call students over a few at a time, have them lay on their stomach side by side with some space in between one another and lift up when I am ready to measure that particular student individually. Height and weight is done one at a time with only myself and the student being measured in a space far away from where other students are moving/working.
Now, on to my issues with FitnessGram…
Issue 1: Invalid Data
If your district is anything like mine, you have had FitnessGram training to ensure you as the physical education teacher understand the test parameters. Also, if your district is anything like mine, you have PE teachers that just do the various tests however they want, despite having the training. As I have talked to people on social media/in person about how they organize their students for fitness testing, one thing becomes clear…FitnessGram tests are administered in totally different ways from one school to the next. Some physical education teachers have their students administer fitness tests to one another during testing, while at other schools, the PE teachers themselves are the only ones that administer the tests.
I can imagine that PE teachers around the country would have various reasons for changing how a particular FitnessGram test is administered in order to make it work for their particular situation. While I don’t condone this practice, I certainly can see PE teachers realistically doing this in response to unrealistic teaching conditions (huge class sizes, limited time, limited space, etc.) in order to get it done. Whether a PE teacher decides to change the curl up test from how it is supposed to be done to hands sliding up and down the thighs, or they decide to get parent volunteers to come in and help administer the tests, it all ends up resulting in one thing…invalid data. What then happens with this invalid data? These invalid scores are then put into the FitnessGram web-portal where department heads take the data from school A, B, C, D and so on to create a district-wide report on students’ fitness levels. This invalid report is then in turn used to make programmatic decisions. The invalid nature of the data turns a well-intentioned practice into a misguided one.
Issue 2: Time
I see my students two separate times/week for 45 minutes, for a total of 90 minutes of PE time per week. With my students receiving such limited time with me each week, every second in the gym counts for so much. Like I mentioned earlier, I administer all FitnessGram tests myself, with the exception of the PACER. This method of administering FitnessGram is significantly more time consuming than having students test one another, but in my mind, it is the only way to get data that is somewhat reliable and valid.
When I did fitness testing earlier this fall, the push up, PACER, trunk lift and height and weight tests each took one full class to administer. The curl up test took a class and a half to complete as did the sit and reach test. I also had one day at the end of the testing window that allowed for make-ups for students that had missed tests for various reasons. Some things you should also know while letting this information sink in is that I have an average of about 30 students in each of my 4th and 5th grade classes, but we are almost exclusively doubled all the time with another class in our small gym. The max I let students go up to for push up and curl ups was one rep more than the top of the “healthy fitness zone range” for their age/gender and for PACER the max laps I allowed them to go up to was 51.
All in all, it took 8 full class periods for all of our 4th/5th grade students to complete the required tests with only myself administering them. I see my students approximately 80 times per year. 8 class periods accounts for, at minimum, 10% of the total amount of time that I see each class per year (this percentage is likely higher for most classes, as it is rare for a class to actually receive 80 physical education classes per year due to days off, assemblies, field trips, etc.). This truth led me to further reflect and question my current fitness testing practices….is it worth it to me to spend 10% or more of my time with a particular class administering fitness tests just in order to have reliable and valid data while other PE teachers in my district taint the data pool with invalid scores? Having thought about it for a while, the short answer is no. Here in Maryland, a bill just got passed through our state house that seeks to limit standardized testing to no more than 2% of class time. This 10% number that I spent administering FitnessGram to my 4th/5th graders is in stark contrast to this recent bill.
This reflection led me to another question…can this time that I am currently spending on administering a standardized barrage of fitness tests in my classes be used more wisely and effectively in order to meet fitness-related objectives and grade level outcomes while also fostering enjoyment for movement? The answer is most certainly yes.
Issue 3: FitnessGram is a One Size Fits All Model
Fitness, in its most basic of forms, is individual in nature. In addition to it being individual in nature, it also is inherently complex. There are so many factors that have an impact on students’ fitness levels; genetic predispositions, activity level, diet and nutrition, among many others. Because of this, it is safe to say that no 2 students are exactly alike in terms of fitness level within any given physical education class.
The implications of this for me as a teacher is to individualize the fitness portions of my lessons through differentiation just as I would for the skill/knowledge portions. This requires me giving students choices/options/alternatives for a variety of exercises based on what they each need. A good example of fitness differentiation might be for a student who is not strong enough to do a regular push up. An alternative for this would be to have them modify this exercise by putting their knees down or by performing the same movement on an incline to make the movement easier while engaging the same muscles.
However, imagine how confused/irritated/embarrassed a student must be when they have been successfully practicing a version of a modified push up during class only to be told when called over for the FitnessGram push up test that they must do it the way the protocol calls for (only hands and feet in contact with the floor, back straight, elbows bending to 90 degrees and staying with the cadence while going down and up)? This student is still not strong enough to perform the movement in this manner yet, tries twice to go up and down, collapses onto their stomach during both attempts, and consequently, gets a 0 on the push up test since they didn’t complete a single push up according to the protocol. This contradiction is not only frustrating for students, but for their PE teachers as well. Testing protocols within FitnessGram completely disregard the need for test differentiation based on current individual students’ fitness levels.
Issue 4: Developmentally Inappropriate at the Elementary Level
The keynote speech that Dr. Robert Pangrazi gave at the 2014 National PE Institute is really what got me thinking about the developmental appropriateness of fitness testing at the elementary level. His big take-home message from this speech was that elementary-aged students do not respond to training since the hormones necessary to do so are not yet present during this stage of their development. He goes on to say that improvements in fitness scores from the fall to the spring are are simply a result of maturation. Watching this speech really got me thinking and if you have not yet seen it, you must. It will certainly make you question the status quo of how things have been done in physical education in recent history.
With this speech as my fuel, I got to thinking specifically about the push up and curl up tests. If elementary students’ musculoskeletal systems do not yet respond to training, why are we even bothering to administer these fitness tests at all to them? Is it necessary? Are we just doing it because we have been told by the Cooper Institute that we have to? All reasonable questions to ask ourselves as PE teachers.
I kept digging deeper into why certain aspects of the push up test and curl up are the way they are and more questions began to enter my head. For example, have you ever wondered why the criteria/form that must be demonstrated for these two tests is EXACTLY the same regardless if the student that is being tested is in the 4th grade or in the 12th grade? For the push up test, no matter what age you are, you must keep your back straight, stay with the down/up cadence and bend elbows to 90 degrees. For the curl up test, no matter what age you are, you must keep your hands in contact with the mat, slide your fingers up and back from line to line, stay with the up/down cadence, make sure your head touches the mat after each rep and make sure your feet remain in contact with the floor. This is all criteria that must be demonstrated regardless of the student’s age, development or experience in order to count as a successful rep on both of these tests.
This practice within FitnessGram is in stark contrast to what we expect students to be able to demonstrate regarding assessments for psychomotor skills across grade levels in our PE classes. Would you assess a 2 grader’s overhand throw using the same criteria as you would for assessing the overhand throw of a 5th grader? No. Why? Because it is developmentally inappropriate. So why on earth would it be OK for us to use identical criteria to determine successful reps/mistakes on the push up and curl up tests for 4th graders compared to 12th graders? It’s sheer lunacy.
Issue 5: Affect of Fitness Testing on Physical Literacy Development and Future Participation in Physical Activity
Our overall goal as physical educators is to help our students to become physically literate as we work to develop the knowledge, skills, competence and confidence necessary in order for them to make the choice to regularly participate in physical activity outside of our gymnasiums. Of those aforementioned facets of physical literacy, research has shown that the biggest predictor of future physical activity is perceived competence. With perceived competence being such a huge piece of the physical activity puzzle, it is worth looking at students’ attitudes, beliefs and feelings in relation to fitness testing.
After having administered fitness tests to my students over the last 7 years, my students’ scores have rarely surprised me. The more athletic students often score in or above the “healthy fitness zone” for each of the tests while students who have interests other than sports often score below the “healthy fitness zone.” Is this data telling me or my students anything they don’t already know? No. My athletic students finish the test feeling accomplished and great about themselves, while my other students leave feeling incompetent and “less than” despite my best efforts as their teacher to let them know that a fitness test is not what defines them as a person.
Recently, I have been thinking more about the long-term effect of these types of feelings on my students’ perceived competence and more specifically about the question, “does fitness testing do more harm than good to these students?” To me, it doesn’t take an extremely advanced degree to understand that a student who consistently does poorly on fitness tests will be less likely to participate in fitness activities outside of PE class. With my non-athletes being fragile as it is, exposure to this might very well turn them off to physical activity all together, which is a cost that we as a nation can not afford.
I think we as PE teachers really need to start asking ourselves two questions continuously throughout our teaching…”why?” and “is there a better way?”. Fitness testing is not exempt from these questions. I encourage you to ask these questions to yourself in relation to your beliefs/feelings about fitness testing at the elementary level.
In my personal belief, I do not think all of parts of fitness testing need to be abandoned at the elementary level. My main areas of contention are with the curl up and push up tests. If it were up to me, I would discontinue the use of these two tests for the reasons I have shared in the paragraphs above. I am however, in favor of keeping the PACER. Since CDC recommendations state that most of the exercise children should have between the ages of 5 and 12 years old should be aerobic in nature, it makes sense to continue with this test. For me especially, I am looking forward to using our heart rate monitors next year with the 5th graders as they do the PACER to really help the students understand the concept of pacing. I am also in favor of keeping Sit and Reach. In the past, it has gone well with getting my students to begin to understand the role that flexibility plays in warm up and cool down procedures before and after exercising.
If fitness testing is something that will continue to be implemented from upper elementary school throughout high school, it should not be exempt from proper scope and sequence development/gap mapping just like any other skill/concept would be in a K-12 physical education curriculum. Why can’t fitness testing at the elementary level be comprised only a few fitness tests with others being added later on in a child’s educational career when it is developmentally appropriate to do so. Food for thought…
Resources That Inspired This Blog