As Politico first reported this week, a little-noticed provision tucked inside Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2020-2021 budget suggests suspending the tests for three years while education officials consult with experts specializing in gender identity, disabilities and adaptive physical education. The goal is to rethink how fitness evaluations are conducted, not get rid of them for good.
But the move has already sparked a heated discussion about whether the tradition encourages teasing and leads to unnecessary stress, or if it’s a way to ensure kids stay fit and healthy at a time when a growing number of students are overweight.
The debate isn’t a new one. In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was horrified to learn that European schoolchildren were acing a fitness test designed by competitive rock climbers, while the majority of American kids failed. As Vox has reported, the fear that the United States was falling behind on the world stage led to the introduction of the Presidential Fitness Test, which rewarded the students who could do the most pull-ups and run the fastest miles.
By the time President Barack Obama entered office in 2009, though, gym teachers had started to worry about the psychological impact of forcing kids to compete in boot-camp-style exercises that tended to be humiliating for those who came in last. In 2012, the Presidential Fitness Test was quietly replaced by a program that focused on students’ overall health rather than arbitrary fitness goals.
Along with Connecticut and Alabama, California is one of only a handful of states that also has its own obligatory school fitness test for teens and preteens. Along with the traditional one-mile run, it includes exercises designed to assess strength and flexibility, such as push-ups, abdominal curls and shoulder stretches.
Currently, students in the fifth, seventh and ninth grades in California are required to take the test. (Those with disabilities are exempt.) Based on their results, they are sorted into one of four categories that range from “very lean” to “needs improvement — health risk.”
But the standards are different for boys and girls, which officials say has prompted complaints from parents whose children don’t identify with either gender. Similarly, transgender students who aren’t out to their classmates and teachers could face an uncomfortable dilemma if they don’t meet the expectations for their chosen gender.
A 2017 UCLA study found that 27 percent of California students between the ages of 12 and 17 said that their peers viewed them as gender nonconforming, and that those adolescents reported higher levels of psychological distress.
“At issue is whether the test in its current form is discriminatory, principally in terms of non-binary students, as well as students with disabilities,” H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, told the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday. “Given the body of research on the impacts of bullying on transgender and special education students, this temporary pause will allow for a look to determine whether the current test can be modified or whether a new assessment should be developed.”
California’s annual fitness test, which has been in place since 1996, also calculates students’ body mass index to determine if their weight is in a healthy range for their size and age. But that metric is controversial because its simple formula doesn’t account for the fact that muscle weighs more than fat. Consequently, extremely fit people — such as bodybuilding legend and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been a strong advocate for school fitness programs — can be miscategorized as overweight.
While the average seventh-grader might not have that problem, the experience can still be fraught. One middle school P.E. teacher in Oakland, Calif., Pj Johnson, told the Chronicle that when she began conducting the annual assessment this week, some of her students were distressed to learn how much they weighed.
“I told my kids, ‘You cannot go by what the chart is telling you,’” she said. “For right now, you be comfortable with you. You know you’re an athlete. All that matters is how you feel, not these numbers somebody put on the wall that tells you where you need to be.”
Though the proposed changes wouldn’t get rid of mandatory physical education classes, some parents have nonetheless raised concerns that getting rid of the fitness test would be a counterproductive move, given the ongoing obesity crisis. The number of California students whose scores place them in the “healthy” range has dropped steadily since the 2014-2015 school year, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s important to know where everybody stands in their physical fitness when they’re going through school,” Barry Harper, the father of a kindergartner in Chico, Calif., told KRCR. “I think data is more important now as we are all just getting bigger.”
There’s some debate over whether mandatory fitness tests actually help encourage healthy lifestyles. In a 2019 study published in Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, researchers from Louisiana State University and Adelphi University found that the assessments were unlikely to effect whether middle-schoolers enjoyed P.E., and that even students who scored well reported feeling bored and angry. In fact, the study’s lead author concluded, the impact on students’ attitudes was so minimal that it suggested the tests were a total waste of class time.
Reactions to Newsom’s proposal have been mixed. On social media, critics accused the governor of “turning kids into liberal pansies” and claimed that changing the test was “another example of lowering the bar so everyone wins.” Some argued that kids would never learn to overcome obstacles, while others suggested that it was the job of parents, not schools, to make sure students stay healthy and fit.
But other parents were supportive. Christine Maxwell told the Sacramento Bee that as a student, she had felt “embarrassed” when she failed to complete a push-up and had her BMI score read out loud in front of her classmates. She didn’t want her daughter to go through the same thing, she said.
“Everyone has different body types,” she said. “School is stressful enough. It should keep students active, but sometimes some people just can’t do some things, and that’s not fair.”
And Newsom’s move to make the tests more inclusive has already won praise from some LGBTQ advocates. Evan Minton, a transgender activist, told KCRA that he was grateful that the governor recognized “that people don’t fit into boxes.”
“When we try to push people into boxes, we put them in harm’s way,” he said. “It puts their mental health, their physical health at risk. It puts their safety at risk as well.”