When it comes to their physical fitness, students are taking baby steps toward better health, according to results from the 2008 California Physical Fitness Test released Tuesday.
The annual public school test measures six areas, including cardiovascular endurance, body fat percentage and strength and flexibility. Every spring, students in grades five, seven and nine run a mile, among other activities. They are scored on whether their performance falls in the "healthy fitness zone," a term used to reflect a reasonable level of fitness.
Across California, all three grades showed a slight increase from last year, with 28.5% of fifth-graders, 32.9% of seventh-graders and 35.6% of ninth-graders achieving in the so-called healthy fitness zone in all six areas.
"It means we're still not very healthy," said Dr. Linda Hooper, consultant for the standards and assessment division of the state Department of Education. "There's definitely room to improve."
Hooper said the results were along the lines of what was expected, but that the department was pleased by the ninth-graders' 5.5% increase from last year. "We haven't seen this kind of jump in several years for anybody," she said.
Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District also improved slightly, although they performed below the state average in nearly every category.
"I'm never satisfied with being below average in anything," L.A. Schools Supt. David L. Brewer said in an interview. "We still have a ways to go, and this is a collective effort. Let's face facts: [For] a lot of these kids, the only time they ever get exercise is at school."
Brewer said that the district would continue to address health issues and that a chef was hired in September to work with cafeteria managers to offer more nutritious food.
However, Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said that the test scores were disheartening and that they clearly indicated that the state must take the issue more seriously.
"When you're talking about a difference of a percentage point or two, it's not cause for celebration," Goldstein said. "And given the situation that we're currently in with the obesity epidemic, we need to see much more dramatic changes if we want our children to live longer and healthier."
Goldstein said the problem lies in the lack of emphasis on physical education in school.
"Far too often, P.E. is kind of the ugly duckling," he said. "It's kind of remarkable, actually, that P.E. as it's taught today has little link to these fitness measures. This is one of those things where you actually want kids to be taught for the test and it's not being done."