Thursday, November 15, 2012

Elementary School Fitness Testing

I'm about to start my seventh week of teaching strength to the third and fourth graders at my children's elementary school and it has been a great learning experience.  The class I'm teaching is part of the school's "clubs" program which is basically a series of special classes that the children can choose from.  These classes cover everything from art to music to physical fitness.  After volunteering with the PE classes last year, the PE teacher asked me if I'd like to teach a strength class and I gladly agreed.

I've talked a lot in other articles about how I feel that proper strength development is essential for kids, especially since they do not get out and play like we did when we were kids.  Additionally, sports injuries in children are rampant and usually the result of overuse injuries and/or a sorely lacking strength base.  However, the main reason I decided to teach this class at my children's elementary school was for one reason in particular and this reason stands out far more than all the other justifications swimming around in my head.

Before I begin my long-winded explanation of my motivations, let me just say that the PE teacher at my children's school is wonderful.  How she manages multiple classes a day of 20 or more hyperactive, distracted, and sometimes just plain full-of-themselves elementary school children is beyond me.  During the fitness testing period every year, however, she requires some parental assistance and so last year I volunteered.  During the fitness testing, we actually test for two different sets of standards.  The first is the Presidential Fitness Test and the second is First in Fitness.  The Presidential Fitness Test has been around for at least thirty years as I remember doing it when I was in sixth grade and it consists of five tests: sit and reach, curl ups (basically a sit-up), a mile run, a pull-up test, and a shuttle run.  Translated into abilities, these translate into the following qualities:  flexibility, core strength, endurance/cardiorespiratory fitness, upper body strength, speed.    The First in Fitness test includes speed jump rope, long jump, 100-yard dash, pull-ups or mile run.

I want you to think critically about these tests for a moment and think about what it would require to do well at each of these.

This is what I think:

My daughter Elizabeth can deadlift 1.5 times her bodyweight
and run a sub-eight minute mile.  But, she can't pass the sit
 and reach test.  Is she not fit?
Sit and reach:  If you have long legs you're screwed, unless you have equally long arms.  Flexibility can be trained, but kids who are going through growth spurts have a harder time keeping up with this.  I saw a lot of taller kids fail this test.  So, big thumbs down on this one.

Curl Ups:  Situps are a weird thing.  I suppose this is okay, but I think a plank hold would be far better.  We don't practice situps in every day life, but we do have to stabilize our core muscles just walking around.  Some kids who are overweight have a hard time getting up off the floor and their bellies get in the way.  This is important because more than half the kids I see are overweight.  Its an okay test, but I don't like it.

Mile run:  This is good actually.  Everyone should be able to run a mile.  However, children should be required to have proper footwear for this.  I don't know what it would take to educate parents about not sending their little girls to school in high heels or their boys in overly big shoes with laces that can't be tightened.  Good bye achilles flexibility and ankle stability.  I'm in big favor of school uniforms with proper gym shoes for this reason.

Pull-ups:  I like pull-ups.  I think everyone should be able to do one.  But just like the curl-up test, overweight students are penalized on this test.  They may actually be stronger than the smaller children who can do pull-ups, they simply can't pull up their own bodyweight.

Shuttle run:  Well, small agile people are going to do well at this test as well.  Its agility, a skill that needs to be practiced.  And some kids just aren't fast.  Its the luck of the genetic draw.

My son Francis:  A genetic freak at speed rope.
The First in Fitness tests, in my opinion, are even less of an actual measure of fitness and more of a measure of genetic advantage.  Standing long jump?  Genetics.  I had one first grader jump almost seven feet having never done it before.   One hundred yard dash?  Genetics.  Just a couple of sub-15 second runs in the first and fourth grade, one from a little girl in high heel boots. Speed rope?  Definitely a developed skill and I tested a lot of kids who didn't know how to jump rope and therefore did very poorly.  And again, the pullups.  The mile run is the only "fair" one here.

Maybe y'all didn't know this, but speed and power are qualities that some people have a substantial genetic advantage in. I see it in track and field all the time.  The fast kids are fast from the first day of practice and they get faster.  The slow kids sometimes do, but mostly don't.  So, maybe they are better at longer distance sprints and running and again, some succeed, some don't.  Some kids can jump, some can throw, but these abilities are pretty obvious from a very young age.  Skill and practice help a great deal, but you can't change certain things very drastically.  And that's okay, its a sport, not fitness testing.

So, is First in Fitness about actual fitness?  Or genetic athletic advantage?  I'm pretty fit, but the kids who succeed at that competition can kick my butt on virtually everything.  Does this somehow make me less fit?  No, it doesn't.  But, it does send a very clear message to the kids who don't succeed at these tests or aren't as good as their peers.  I can see it on their faces.  It tells them to stop trying.

They can both do pushups.  Patrick is not as gifted as his
brother at athletics, but he's just as strong.  
And so, while administering these fitness tests last year, I watched an overweight kid run a sub-seven minute mile in jeans and dress shoes.  And then, I watched that same kid fail the pull-up test, sit and reach test, and the curl-up test because he was overweight.  It was kind of disheartening.  Let me be very clear, its not his fault he's overweight.  School breakfast, lunches, and whatever he's being fed at home by well-meaning parents are at fault there.  I can't change what he's eating because he's not my son.  But, I know that I can show him something he's good at.  I can show him that he is strong and by making him stronger, I can improve a lot of his abilities.  And so, that's what I started doing this year.

The last thing we need to do as adults is give kids a reason to give up.  We have to find ways to inspire them, give them confidence, and excel at the things they are good at and still do the things they are not so good at.  I'm not advocating getting rid of the fitness testing in schools, I think the intention is good and it gives kids something to work towards.  However, I think the tendency to call things "fitness" when they should be called "genetically advantaged athletic ability" is high.  Let's get our kids active, strengthen their bodies, and have regular testing that shows them the progress they've made rather than awarding them an arbitrary grade based on skills and abilities they may never excel in.  Contests are great, but if we want to encourage our kids to get fit and enjoy an active lifestyle, we need to pay attention to all of them, support their efforts, and allow them all to succeed.  If we are going to be using fitness tests as a standard for our children's fitness, substantial development of the qualities that are tested should be a substantial part of the PE curriculum.  Of course, this would also require that PE be a more substantial part of the school curriculum as a whole, but I'll save that argument for another day.

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