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California may pause student physical fitness tests due to bullying concerns

Gavin Newsom
Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to students during his visit to the Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento on Oct. 7, 2019.
(Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to pause physical education tests for California students for three years due to concerns over bullying and possible discrimination against disabled and nonbinary students.

The move comes after annual test results showed a growing percentage of students scoring as “not healthy.”

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said the state has received complaints that the current examination’s measurement of body mass index is discriminatory to nonbinary students. A measurement calculated from weight and height, the school BMI screenings require students to select “male” or “female,” he said.

Annual state reports of the fitness test since the 2014-15 school year show a steady decline in the share of students scoring “healthy,” according to a review by the Associated Press. Students’ scores have particularly dropped in the category of the test that measures aerobic capacity, which can be tested with a one-mile run, for example. Other categories test for flexibility and exercises like push-ups.

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In the last five years, the percentage of fifth graders scoring healthy in the aerobic category has dropped by 3.3 percentage points. In seventh and ninth grades, the drops are 4.4 percentage points and 3.8 percentage points, respectively. Meanwhile, the percentage of students identified as “needing improvement” and having a “health risk” went up: by 3.3 percentage points among fifth graders, 4.4 for seventh graders and 3.8 among ninth graders.

The Department of Education did not immediately comment on those results.

During the suspension of the physical fitness test program that Newsom has proposed, the state would study whether the current test should be modified or redrawn anew, Palmer said.

Physical education classes would remain a requirement for graduation, however.

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The proposal, first reported by Politico, was tucked inside Newsom’s education budget bill for next year.

School districts nationwide use such tests, and the results can inform still-growing children about potential health problems, experts say. But data from such tests and BMI measurements should not be used to diagnose health risks, according to the Society of Health and Physical Educators.

“The issue of BMI screening plays a role in the issues of both body shaming and bullying,” Palmer also wrote in an email.

Bodybuilder and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had several school fitness initiatives during his time in office. He said through a spokesman that physical education classes should be the top priority.

“Whether the state uses fitness tests or not, Gov. Schwarzenegger believes that the most important thing is that our students have access to daily physical education classes to promote a healthy and fit lifestyle,” said Daniel Ketchell, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger.

Ketchell agreed that BMI screenings are flawed. He said, for instance, that the 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound Schwarzenegger would have been officially classified as obese when he won the top bodybuilding title of Mr. Olympia in 1974.


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