The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Most Texas school kids failing in fitness

With two-thirds flunking state test, looser rules for gym classes raise fears


July 2, 2010, 9:18AM

Mayra Beltran Chronicle

More than two-thirds of Texas schoolchildren flunked the state's physical fitness test this year, a troubling trend that doctors worry could get worse with the Legislature loosening the requirements for high school gym class.

The bright spot among the newly released state data involves elementary and middle school students, who met the healthy benchmarks at slightly higher rates than they did two years ago when Texas became the first state to mandate annual fitness testing.

Third-grade girls continued to perform the best this year, with 37 percent passing all six tests, which involve running, strength and flexibility exercises and a body fat measure. High school seniors did the worst, with about 8 percent of each gender meeting the healthy standard.

"It's very concerning and a very dramatic result," said Dr. Sarah Barlow, the director of the Center for Childhood Obesity at Texas Children's Hospital. "Schools have a lot of pressure now so there's not the quantity of physical education that is recommended by health organizations."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity — most of it aerobic exercise - every day.

Texas law says elementary students must get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day - or 150 minutes a week - though an exception allows districts to slash 15 minutes off the weekly mandate. Middle school students must get a half-hour of daily physical activity for four of their six semesters.

For high school students, the Legislature last year reduced the number of physical education credits needed for graduation from three semesters to two starting with the upcoming school year.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, who sponsored the 2007 bill requiring annual fitness testing, said she was encouraged by the improvement among younger students but concerned overall.

"The high school results are alarming and show why this is a bad time to be cutting P.E. requirements," said Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

To be considered physically fit:

A 12-year-old boy is expected to:

• Complete one-mile run in no more than 10 minutes, 30 seconds

• Have a body fat percentage of 25 or less

• Perform 18 curl-ups (tests abdominal strength)

• Perform nine trunk lifts (tests trunk strength)

• Perform 10 push-ups (tests upper-body strength)

• Sit with one knee bent and one leg straightened against a box, then reach fingers within 8 inches of the box (tests flexibility)

A 12-year-old girl must:

• Complete a 1-mile run in no more than 12 minutes

• Have a body fat percentage of 32 or less

• Perform 18 curl-ups

• Perform nine trunk lifts

• Perform seven push-ups

• Sit with one knee bent and one leg straightened against a box, then reach fingers within 10 inches of the box

Source: The Cooper Institute Fitnessgram

Some students exempt

The high school passing rates have remained relatively flat or dipped over the last two years, though educators caution that many of the students in the older grades don't take the test and if they do, they don't take it seriously.

All students are supposed to participate, but many high school students are exempt from gym classes - where the testing typically takes place - because they are in athletics, cheerleading or marching band.

Julie Harris-Lawrence, a deputy associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the testing, said state officials are working to motivate the older students next year in part by promoting the tests via social media such as Facebook and asking the teens to make their own fitness videos.

"We need to get more and better data and have more buy-in from the high school students," she said. "We know that's an issue, just like the 10th-grade TAKS test."

Sophomore scores on the TAKS test are notoriously low, many educators believe, because 10th-graders know their scores have no effect on whether they graduate.

Seeking a grant

In the Pasadena Independent School District, where students generally did worse than the state average on the fitness test, school officials are applying for a grant to offer more appealing physical education options, such as popular exercise classes found at pricey health clubs. One high school teacher already has started a half-marathon training program.

"We're looking at ways to make it more marketable to kids, letting them know that physical education is as important as knowing their math and their science," said Pam Tevis, Pasadena ISD's assistant director for health, P.E. and athletics.

More fit, fewer problems

A state analysis last year found that schools with better fitness results also had higher academic performance and fewer discipline problems.

The so-called Fitnessgram test developed by the Dallas-based Cooper Institute asks students to run, do sit-ups and push-ups or pull-ups, reach their toes from a seated position, and do trunk lifts, which assess back strength.

It also measures body composition through a skin-fold test or using the body mass index, which looks at healthy levels of height and weight. The passing standard varies by gender and grade level.