A one mile run. As many sit-ups, and push-ups, as you are able. Sit and reach for your toes. It’s the physical fitness test that students, from elementary through high school, have taken in some form for decades, not that Connecticut students are getting better at it.
In 2018-19, in fact, just 52.9 percent of students statewide met or exceeded a minimum standard of physical fitness. Only one school district in southeastern Connecticut – Deep River – met the state’s target of 75 percent, with a score of 84.3 percent. Statewide just 12 other districts met the state standard.
“That’s half of the state’s children that are physically illiterate. If you say it like that, people might actually pay attention,” said Jaci VanHeest, as associate professor in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut who specializes in physical activity and childhood obesity.
“Physical literacy” is the ability to competently and confidently be physically active. It is a skill just like reading and writing, VanHeest said, and just as important, especially to long-term health outcomes.
“Our children are not as physically active as they were 20 years ago, or 30 years ago. It shouldn’t startle anybody that only half of our children can meet the assessment – we are not practicing it,” VanHeest said. “Children today don’t often play outside for fun. There is a lack of value placed on the physical dimension. You’re playing or you’re working out or your exercising, but it’s not taken seriously.”
Despite the poor results, a 50 percent pass rate is consistent with nationwide results on physical fitness tests in recent years, said VanHeest. According to the 2018 United States Report Card on Physical Activity, only about 25 percent of children meet the 60 minute per day recommendation for exercise from the United State Department of Agriculture.
According to third-generation standards launched last year, for tenth grade students in Connecticut, boys are expected to run a mile in seven-and-one-half minutes, and girls are expected to finish in ten. Boys must complete 16 push-ups, and girls must complete 9. Boys need to finish 34 sit-ups, and girls must finish 32.
“Everything that’s on here is very common and standardized with international data. It’s a really strong, appropriate test,” said VanHeest. “It’s not the test. It’s the participant that’s taking the test.”
Unlike other state testing, however, data are collected by individual teachers leaving some to wonder about the accuracy of the measure.
“This data is collected by individual teachers at each school in each district and, therefore, the validity of this information is inherently flawed as it is not evaluated by an outside singular impartial party,” said Ian Neviaser, the superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, that had just 53.8 percent of students meet or exceed the standards. “That being said, all Lyme-Old Lyme physical education teachers use the state assessment to guide their Student Learning Objectives. Our teachers identify areas where students are under-performing on the fitness test and build into their coursework differentiated and targeted instruction and exercise to support increased fitness levels.”
Neviaser said that in an effort to improve physical fitness, this January the high school will be launching “Fitness Fridays” in all ninth and tenth grade physical education classes. The program will have students measure a baseline and work to improve through regularly tracking their results.
According to VanHeest, there simply isn’t enough time in-school to come close to helping students become physically literate.
“If you look at content hours – it’s only 20 minutes twice a week – even on those days you need 40 additional minutes to meet the recommendation,” VaneHeest said. “It’s a miniscule amount of time.”
But, the small amount of time can add up.
At the most recent Essex Board of Education, the elementary school students presented on a Move-a-thon fundraiser event where students can pledge exercise time in exchange for contributions. It is an effort – just like “Fitness Fridays” – to place more of an emphasis and importance on physical activity in the school.
“I support the small dose ideas – if you can make it fun and challenging and peer-focused then all the better,” VanHeest said. “If you can get these people to be more active even in the walking between class time, students will gradually start to be more active in the rest of their lives too.”
Although school wellness policies, recess time and physical education classes are all mandated in Connecticut, VanHeest said the most effective programs are the ones, like Husky Sport in the Hartford Public Schools, that teach children how to enjoy being active.
“I think it should alarm us in the sense that American children – and more specifically Connecticut children – are not nearly as physically fit,” VanHeest said. “Just like reading and math scores, this matters.”