Case Study: A Report Card For Student Fitness

April 29, 2013

Today we’re featuring a case study from Health in Mind, a new report from HSC and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), which details immediate solutions that can help close the achievement gap and create a healthy future for all children. Here, we learned how the state of Texas used an assessment tool to gain powerful insight into the fitness levels of students.

Today we're featuring a case study from Health in Mind, a new report from HSC and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), which details immediate solutions that can help close the achievement gap and create a healthy future for all children. Here, we learned how the state of Texas used an assessment tool to gain powerful insight into the fitness levels of students.

By Kadesha Thomas

Studies found that nearly one in five youths in the state was obese, ranking Texas as the sixth most obese state in the country. The prevalence of obesity led to increases in type 2 diabetes. The state found itself on the verge of a staggering statistic—one in three young people born after 2000 would develop diabetes in their lifetime.

In 2007, the Texas legislature decided to do something about it. Senate Bill 530 mandated an increase in physical activity in schools with an emphasis on tracking students’ fitness levels and monitoring academic outcomes. Fitnessgram® was chosen in September as the state’s fitness assessment tool.

The tool was developed in 1982 by The Cooper Institute, a Dallas-based research organization that analyzes the role of exercise in disease prevention. As childhood obesity was emerging as a public health threat, the organization sought to provide schools with a way to measure their students’ fitness levels.

“School-based programming provides a way to reach the majority of youth, and existing resources and programs can be targeted for change (e.g., school lunches and physical education),” founder Kenneth H. Cooper wrote in the September 2010 issue of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. “If schools were held more accountable for promoting physical activity and healthy eating, it is likely the trends in obesity would not be as drastic. The passage of Senate Bill 530 represents a coordinated effort within Texas to improve the quality of state physical education programming.”

Fitnessgram® is a comprehensive fitness assessment for youth. It includes a variety of health-related physical fitness tests designed to assess aerobic capacity, muscle strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. One option for measuring body composition is Body Mass Index (BMI). Teachers enter data and the Fitnessgram® software produces a prescriptive personalized report card. Students work to achieve the “Healthy Fitness Zone” for each test item, is based on scientifically determined criteria for each test item. The report card indicates whether the student is in the “healthy fitness zone,” needs to improve, or is at is at risk. Results can be emailed to parents or printed for students and their parents.

More than 2.5 million students in third through twelfth grade were evaluated during the first six months of 2008. This represented 84.8 percent of all the state’s public school districts. The results shined a spotlight on the state’s strengths and weaknesses in student fitness, particularly health disparities based on age, gender and socioeconomic status. For example, most students hit the healthy fitness zone on most individual assessments, but that achievement dropped off as students got older. In El Paso, 55.8 percent of third-grade boys made it into the healthy fitness zone on all five exercise drills and the BMI test. But that number shrank to 11.7 percent for boys in their senior year of high school. Among third-grade girls in El Paso, nearly 70 percent hit the healthy fitness zone in all six areas, but only 10 percent of twelfth-grade girls performed as well.

The test also showed that fitness levels tended to be higher in districts with higher socioeconomic status and less diverse student populations. Students in the healthy fitness zones were also more confident, had higher ratings of body satisfaction and lower rates of depression.

“Some variability can be attributed to demographics and socioeconomic status but also to the school environment, the teacher’s capabilities, and the policies and programs in place in the district and school,” Cooper wrote. “Schools with well-structured (and required) physical education programming had considerably better fitness levels than those from other districts.”

The statewide Fitnessgram® testing gave Texas school districts insight into why obesity was surging among students, and how it could be addressed. Healthier students would be one benefit of increasing fitness in schools, but higher scores on academic tests were to be another. Later research showed that higher fitness levels were associated with higher rates of school attendance and higher performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Cooper wrote: “The findings suggest that fitness achievement may enhance, rather than impede, academic achievement.”

Read other Health in Mind case studies and learn more.