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New Developments in Physical Testing for Students

This article originally appeared in the January 1988 issue of AB with the headline, “Are Kids Really So Out of Shape?”


The next time you run across some of those demoralizing statistics about how physically unfit American kids are, try to keep in mind that there are experts out there who say the statistics may not mean beans.

That’s not to say the experts believe that kids are a picture of good health; there are disturbing indications that increasingly sedentary lifestyles and poor nutritional habits are taking their toll. But, there is a widespread feeling among professionals in the fitness research community that the statistics most often cited may be misleading. Many are based on tests that emphasize specific motor skills, rather than broader definitions of health and fitness, and they often reflect comparative norms—how a student compares to his or her peers—rather than absolute standards of what a “fit” boy or girl should be able to do.


A Statistical History

The history of youth fitness statistics dates back to the early 1950s with the publication of results of the Kraus-Hirschland Test, which compared the “minimum muscular fitness” of American youth with youngsters in Austria, Italy and Switzerland. The results, which were poorly received by the American public, showed that 58 percent of American youth failed the test, while only 9 percent of the Europeans did.

Partly as a result of that and partly because of what had been perceived to be an unusually high rejection rate of military recruits during the Korean War, Dwight D. Eisenhower created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (now the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports) in 1956.

Shortly thereafter, in 1957, a group that eventually became the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) developed a battery of fitness tests for American youth.

The original AAHPERD Youth Fitness Test, which underwent modification in 1964, 1974 and 1980 established seven testing categories: pull-ups for boys and modified pull-ups for girls, sit-ups, a standing long jump, a 30-yard shuttle run, a 50-yard dash, a 600-yard run and a softball throw.

From the beginning, the President’s Council has used the test results to determine winners of its awards, the most prestigious being the Presidential Fitness Award. The Merit and Standard awards go to kids who scored less well.

But the requirements are stringent, in order to ensure the prestige of the awards. To qualify for the Presidential Award, only students who pass all the test components with comparative marks in the 85th percentile—the top 15 percent—are eligible.


Largely a Matter of Genetics

So, over the past 30 years, who do you suppose stood the best chance in competition such as the standing long jump, the 50-yard dash or the 600-yard run? The athletes, of course—in great part, those who are simply genetically blessed.

Now, as even such critics as Steve Blair, director of epidemiology at the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas will attest, there is nothing inherently wrong with competitive sports or the measurement of physical skills based on athletic performance. But, critics ask, is it reasonable to set the tests up as realistic norms for three generations of American youth to follow?

Take the National School Population Fitness Survey, for example, a test supported by the President’s Council and AAHPERD in 1985. The survey examined some 19,000 elementary and secondary school students, who were tested in six of nine testing categories drawn from a battery that included pull-ups or flexed-arm hangs, bent-leg sit-ups, the V-sit-and-reach, shuttle run, standing long jump, 50-yard dash, mile run/walk, and the two-mile walk.

When all was said and done, only 11 boys out of 9,678—0.1 percent—scored in the 85th percentile on any six of the nine items.

That’s hardly encouraging for something like future Olympic programs, but what does it really mean? It means, according to Blair, that it’s high time to chuck out the norms and come up with reasonable standards.

“The question that never seemed to occur to anyone,” says Blair, “Was that if we have an unfit population of kids, of what value are the norms?

“What does it mean to be in the 50th percentile or the 80th percentile in a population you have assumed to be basically unfit? No one ever attempted to say now many pull-ups a 12-year-old boys should be able to do and relate that to anything.

“Now granted,” says Blair, “establishing standards is a difficult thing to do. As in many areas of science, the amount of data is inadequate and our knowledge is imperfect, and we must continue to work on these things.

“But, if we’re to measure something we call ‘physical fitness,’ then we have an obligation to use our best professional judgment and tell people what we think the appropriate amount really is, not simply say that 30 percent of boys, ages 6 to 12, cannot run a mile in less than 10 minutes,” says Blair. “What in the world does that mean?”


Health-Related Standards

Until political differences led to a parting of the ways about a year ago, the Institute for Aerobics Research, AAHPERD and the President’s Council had worked together to develop health-related tests to complement the motor-skills tests that make up the Youth Fitness Test.

In the late 1970s, they created the Health-Related Physical Fitness Test (HRPFT), which has been available as a supplement to the Youth Fitness Test for the past seven years.

The President’s Council, however, not wanting to dilute the prestige of its Presidential Award, continues to base its fitness components on five performance-related tests: curl-ups, pull-ups, V-sit-and-reach, the shuttle run and the mile run/walk.

The Institute for Aerobics Research, in the meantime, has gone forward with its own testing program, drawn in great part from the Youth Fitness Test and a modified HRPFT.


Encouraging Participation

Believing that the normative requirements of the Presidential Award discourage, rather than encourage, participation, the Institute developed a standard-based testing program called Fitnessgram, following a model designed in 1979 by Charles Sterling, M.D., currently the Institute’s chief executive officer.

Underwritten by the Campbell Soup Co., Fitnessgram was introduced in Tulsa, Okla., in 1982 and expanded to cover the state of Oklahoma in 1983. Since 1984, when it was implemented nationally, it has been used by more than 2,000 school districts in 50 states and 12 countries. Approximately 2.5 million students were tested under its auspices in 1986.

“We wanted to de-emphasize or even do away with the normative approach and completely revise the awards system,” says Blair. “In the long run, we felt it would be possible for a majority of student to achieve the appropriate standards.”

In the short run, Fitnessgram statistics already have shown that students are making improvements. Based on comparisons between the 1984 and 1986 testing, a sample of about 17,000 students, ages 5-16, have demonstrated “significant improvement” in five testing items derived from the AAHPERD Youth Fitness Test model.

The Institute also has begun to compare its mean scores with the national means established by AAHPERD on comparable items derived from its 1975 and 1980 testing. In the comparison, students have generally scored better on tests of abdominal strength and flexibility; have stayed roughly the same in upper-body strength; and have generally not fared as well in terms of body composition and cardiovascular endurance.

Fitnessgram’s five principal testing components for kindergarten through grade 12 are the mile run/walk to measure aerobic capacity; sit-ups for abdominal strength and endurance; pull-ups/flexed-arm hangs for upper-body strength and endurance; sit-and-reach for lower-back flexibility and posterior thighs; and the skinfold test or body-mass index to measure body composition.

The testing for body composition and cardiovascular efficiency, each among the more recent national testing innovations, are considered key in the Fitnessgram program.

“There are no studies in which anyone has measured cardiovascular fitness in a group of children and followed them through into middle age to see what levels were predictive of heart disease in middle age, and probably never will be,” says Blair. “What we’re left with then is taking the available data and trying to apply a rational and logical thought process to come up with what we think might be best for the future.

“If you consider that according to the President’s Council, some 40 percent of all children, ages 5 though 8, show at least one sign of heart disease risk (obesity, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure or physical inactivity), then some strategy for revision of habits would logically seem appropriate.”


Competing with Themselves

The Fitnessgram program seeks to acknowledge and commend not competition among many, but the performance of one student vis-à-vis the optimum health standards set for his or her age group. In effect, each student is competing only with him or herself.

As an aid in motivation, the system has established four awards for participants, ranging from superior performance in four of the five testing categories, to simply a demonstrable effort to engage in commendable exercise behavior. The Honor Award may be presented by an instructor to a student merely for achieving specific personal goals, even though they may be shy of the standard.

As a further inducement to youngsters, the program also includes a variety of mementos or prizes—certificates, buttons, caps, pencils, posters and the like.

Another wrinkle is a computerized report card that compares a student’s scores with the standards and includes training recommendations for students and parents to see how the scores might improve.

The purpose, says Blair, is not only to provide objective feedback and reinforcement, but also to serve as a communications link between the teacher, student and parent. To implement the system, software for IBM and Apple computers is provided as part of the package.

Still in the works is a plan to develop Nutrigram, a system designed to assess dietary habits. Additional materials and a curriculum development also are in the planning stages for both the exercise and nutrition programs.


AAHPERD’s New Track

AAHPERD, meanwhile, has begun to parallel the Fitnessgram approach in most of its philosophical objectives, although maintaining its relationship with the President’s Council in implementing the Presidential Award.

Apart from their obvious economic competition (each of the programs depends in great part on sales to the schools), the major reason for the division between them still seems to come down to the Institute’s preference for awards that encourage mass participation, and the President’s Council’s belief that high standards of excellence should continue to exist. In interviews, both Steve Guback, director of public information for the President’s Council, and Ray Ciszek, vice president of AAHPERD, have acknowledged as much.

On all other fronts, however, AAHPERD is moving toward testing that emphasizes overall health rather than specific motor performance skills. For one thing, AAHPERD’s HRPFT has been used in two recent youth fitness studies, and AAHPERD is now attempting to establish standards for the HRPFT.

Also, according to Ciszek, this month AAHPERD begins to mail a new manual to every school district in the country, and at some future state they will follow that up with a computerized program.

“It’s designed so the teachers can plug in the scores and it will print something out that goes home with the kids to indicate to the youngsters and parents how they’re doing on the fitness level,” says Ciszek.

“It’s very similar to Fitnessgram.”

There also will be a revision of the awards system. A student can still test for the Presidential Award, but for those who may be less inclined to scale the summit, the AAHPERD awards will be tailored to health-related fitness achievement, goal-setting and participation in an exercise program outside the school.

Another change, still in development, will be a kit that contains lesson plans, activities, games “and the concepts for the knowledge that will assist these kids in not only understanding the value of good exercise habits, but hopefully in putting it all into practice outside of the schools,” says Ciszek.

“The test is still the core, but it’s no longer the only thing. We have to start doing some teaching.

“We’re not only concerned with what the children’s status is, but in the teachers teaching ‘cognitive learning,’ that is, the knowledge and understanding of exercise, fitness and the active lifestyle,” says Ciszek.

“The whole idea is to teach something in the classroom and not just the P.E. department, because every school does not have five days a week of physical education.

“What we know about fitness is that you’ve got to work at it three days a week for as much as 25 minutes,” says Ciszek, “and if you have but one day of physical education, you’re not going to improve in the fitness category unless the kids are being active outside of the schools.”

Between AAHPERD and the Institute for Aerobics Research, there may finally emerge “a methodology for systematically assessing the physical fitness of children,” a goal set by the U.S. Surgeon General in the 1990 Objectives for the Nation, published in 1979.

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