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Lifting the bar

The state wants to jog schools into ensuring that California's children get adequate physical education.

July 12, 2007

CALIFORNIA'S SCHOOLKIDS are out of shape. Only about one-quarter typically meet minimum standards on the state's physical fitness exam, and at some schools not one child in 1,000 scores a perfect six out of six.

We're not trying to shame children. Many adults probably couldn't pass all six of the tests: a one-mile run/walk and examinations of body composition, flexibility and upper-body, back and abdominal strength. Nonetheless, this generation of children is more obese than the last, has higher rates of Type II diabetes and is on track to live shorter lives than their parents. Locally, 87% of children in the Los Angeles Unified School District are not physically fit, and almost 40% in the county are obese.

Legislation that went into effect this month is meant to shore up California's sorry state of physical education. As of July 1, students have to pass the state fitness test, which is administered in grades five, seven and nine, in order to be eligible for an exemption from physical education in high school. This matters because apparently those exemptions are passed out like paper hats at a party.

All high school students are required to take two years of physical education to be eligible for graduation unless they get an exemption. The state Department of Education doesn't keep data on how many students receive exemptions, but officials say that many do. Many. So until now, kids could fail the fitness test in middle school, then exempt out of gym class in high school.

State Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), a former high school track coach and sponsor of the new rule, says it should function as a reality check for students and schools. But the best intentions of legislators are often no match for bureaucratic loopholes. Because there is no state statute defining what it means to "pass" the test, school districts define it for themselves.

Which is why Torlakson is sponsoring additional legislation that would not only provide funding for physical education teachers to craft classes that better engage students, but would define passing as meeting the minimum standards on five of six parts of the test. This would result in trustworthy test scores and an honest assessment of the health of California's children.

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