November 26, 2004

California Students Get a Failing Grade in Fitness

Before the turkey, yams and stuffing make an appearance today, parents may want to consider taking the kids outside for a game of touch football.

That's because nearly three-quarters of California's public school students aren't physically fit, according to results of a survey released Wednesday by the state Education Department.

More than 1.3 million students in grades five, seven and nine were assessed last spring with a test that measures fitness in six areas: aerobic capacity, body fat percentage, abdominal strength and endurance, trunk strength and flexibility, upper body strength and endurance, and overall flexibility.

Of those tested, only 27 percent were deemed fit, meaning they met benchmarks in all six areas. That's up from 25 percent last year, though the modest gain did little to console Jack O'Connell, the state's superintendent of public instruction. He called the percentage "unacceptable."

"We have a long way to go to eradicate the silent epidemic of childhood obesity and poor nutritional health," he said in a statement Wednesday.

Countywide, the numbers were up slightly for a second consecutive year, though they continued to lag behind state averages. Only 21.4 percent of fifth-graders, 23.7 percent of seventh-graders and 19.3 percent of ninth-graders in Los Angeles County hit all six targets.

Locally, the El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Redondo Beach, Torrance and Wiseburn districts produced healthier pass rates than the state overall, but the Centinela Valley, Hawthorne, Lennox and Los Angeles systems were below the curve.

This is the fifth year of state-mandated fitness reporting. And, once again, California's test of choice was the Fitnessgram, which was developed by the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. In each of the six categories, Fitnessgram-takers strive to reach healthy fitness zones, which vary by age and gender.

For example, a 15-year-old boy is expected to complete at least three pull-ups, or hang with his chin over the bar for 15 seconds or more, while a 15-year-old girl should be able to do one pull-up or hang in place for eight to 12 seconds.

And all students from the age of 10 to 16 are required to test their flexibility by touching both sets of fingertips, with this catch: one arm must be behind the back while the other arm is stretched over the shoulder and behind the head.

Aerobic capacity continues to be the biggest challenge for California's students. According to Fitnessgram standards, an 11- year-old boy is expected to be able to run a mile in less than 11 minutes, while a girl the same age should be able to travel the same distance in less than 12 minutes.

The Lennox School District has gained a reputation as an innovator when it comes to fitness activities -- evidenced by the middle school's 50-foot wood and rope climbing tower, which can be seen from the freeway. But for the second consecutive year, Lennox's scores dropped in grades five (11.3 percent met all six fitness standards, down from 14.5 percent in 2003) and seven (5 percent were deemed fit, down from 9 percent).

Rick Hornstra, a P.E. teacher at Lennox Middle School, said widespread behavioral changes are needed to improve these figures. Children, he said, must adopt healthy lifestyles long before they reach their teens.

Hornstra said low-income students at his school are less likely to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and many have little experience reading nutritional information on food packages.

"They don't know how many calories are in a bag of Cheetos," he said, "or that that bag doesn't just serve one; it includes 2 1/2 servings."

In an effort to reach younger children, Hornstra has been named as the coordinator of a grant-funded program that will provide physical education training for Lennox's elementary teachers. Schools will also get equipment as part of the three-year, $279,150 Physical Education Program award, he said.

Betty Hennessy, a physical education consultant with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said a successful obesity prevention program needs to target children from the womb through age 8.

"Preschool teachers are saying they have never seen preschool children so overweight as a group," Hennessy said.

She said more should be done to bridge the gaps that separate students by race, ethnicity and income.

In Los Angeles County, white students generally produced much higher fitness rates than blacks and Latinos in 2004. Students of Asian descent outpaced whites in grades seven and nine, but not five.

Hennessy said possible factors contributing to performance gaps include access to both nutritional foods and large open spaces for running and playing.

"People are often shocked to learn that there are the same achievement gaps in the physical fitness scores as there are in other areas that we are trying to close," she said.