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Just 31% of California students pass P.E. test

California schools Supt. Tom Torlakson seeks to improve the results by having celebrity athletes promote fitness. Recent budget problems have cut into funding for sports programs.

December 03, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • One expert blamed students' poor fitness scores on budget cuts that have pared back physical education and sports programs across the state. Above, students exercise at Knollwood Elementary School in Granada Hills.
One expert blamed students' poor fitness scores on budget cuts that… (Ken Hively / Los Angeles…)

Fewer than one-third of California students who took a statewide physical fitness test this year managed to pass all six areas assessed, new results show.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a longtime cross-country coach who has made physical fitness a signature issue, announced the results this week as he launched a program to improve children's health. The campaign will use such celebrity athletes as NBA all-star Bill Walton and others to visit schools to urge students to drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables and increase their exercise.

"When only 31% of children are physically fit, that's a public health challenge we can't wait to address," Torlakson said in a statement.

The results for the 1.34 million students tested in fifth, seventh and ninth grades showed a decline in all three grades over last year. Scores had been steadily improving since 2006. To pass the test, or score what state officials call a "healthy fitness zone," a ninth-grade male, 5 feet 6 and 150 pounds, would need to run a mile in nine minutes, perform at least 16 push-ups and do at least 24 curl-ups. Body fat is also measured, along with flexibility.

About 25% of fifth-graders passed all six sections; 32% of seventh-graders and 36.8% of ninth-graders did so.

Linda Hooper, a state education department consultant, said scores dipped this year in large part because two of the sections — those measuring aerobic capacity and body fat — used more accurate measurements. But she said another factor was budget cuts that have pared back physical education and sports programs across the state.

Hooper said she was particularly concerned about "a pretty major dip" in the fitness levels of elementary students, which she attributed in part to the cutback in physical education teachers on campus.

"With the budget crisis, P.E. and athletics have become less important," she said.

Los Angeles Unified students scored slightly worse than the statewide average. Chad Fenwick, a district physical education advisor, said California's largest school system had long lagged behind the state, in part because many students are low income, a socioeconomic factor correlated with lower fitness levels. Yet scores have steadily improved in the last seven years — 49.2% of ninth-graders passed five of six sections this year, the state target, compared to 26% in 2004, he said.

This year, scores dropped largely because of the section changes, he said.

Among other initiatives to improve children's health, Fenwick said, the district has received a state grant for the last four years to send a credentialed physical education teacher to about 60 elementary schools to work with students and train classroom teachers. Although the state now allows districts to use that money to meet other needs, L.A. Unified has kept its physical education program, he said.

This year, the district also revamped its cafeteria menu, replacing such items as chocolate milk and French fries for more healthful fare.

But Fenwick said budget cuts in the last two years have hurt high school physical education programs, boosting class sizes to as high as 80. "Class sizes are up pretty dramatically, and it's another thing that worries us," he said.

Those concerns are shared statewide. A survey released last month by the California State PTA found that 75% of the 1,600 members polled said their school's physical education and sports programs had been eliminated or reduced. Restoring such programs was the top health concern cited.

Torlakson's new campaign, Team California for Healthy Kids, will encourage schools to apply for grants for salad bars, form partnerships with farmers markets, integrate physical activity into instruction and other activities.

The 2011 Physical Fitness Test results are available on the California Department of Education website under Physical Fitness Testing. Information on the Team California for Healthy Kids initiative is available under Team California for Healthy Kids — Initiatives & Programs.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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