Why Don’t PE Fitness Tests Seem To Help?

If you know me, have heard me speak or read anything I’ve written about youth fitness, physical literacy for kids or even the training of youth athletes, you know there’s one unifying idea that I believe cannot be ignored if we intend to create positive connections to fitness and exercise for kids.

It’s a pretty simple concept, really.

If we want our children to grow up with a love of physical activity and a desire for fitness and all its attendant benefits, they have to want to do the stuff of fitness!

If we make fitness a chore or a “grind” all the time, they’re not going to want to do it for long. Think about this: how excited are most kids about doing homework, taking out the trash or cleaning their room?

Exactly. They don’t jump at the chance to do those things because they aren’t FUN!

Now before you start thinking “Here we go again! Another “free range kid” nut,” relax. I’m a believer in organized, progressive fitness training for kids. Functional movements are important for kids, without question.

They need the “big 5 plus” as much as anyone else. Squatting, lunging, hinging, pushing, pulling and carrying/dragging/pushing heavy stuff around is great for them. So is core training, improved cardiovascular fitness, mobility and flexibility should also be on the menu.

There’s not a single reason, however, that all of that can’t be fun. There are lots of ways to incorporate all the important movements and aspects of fitness into a program for kids that they will want to be involved with.

The reality, however, is that most PE programs have come to resemble the way that most other courses of education are being executed. Teachers will tell you that they are now forced to “teach to the test.”

Standardized (or not) Fitness Tests are too often used as a “gold standard” in PE programs. However, there is little evidence to support the ability of these tests to either measure true fitness in kids or motivate them to want to engage in fitness activities.

Now there’s another study that reveals how little impact PE fitness tests have on the attitudes of school kids toward physical education. Rather than increasing the enjoyment of physical education for kids, this testing seems to have little to no impact on those attitudes. In truth, testing kids’ fitness during PE class may be nothing more than a waste of time.

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Scientists from Louisiana State University and Adelphi University just published a paper in Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy that makes this exact connection and finding. Of course, this contradicts what both supporters and opponents of PE fitness testing have believed.

“Our results show that extreme views on this controversial subject may be unfounded, since fitness tests neither put students off PE nor encourage a positive outlook on participation,” says Kelly Simonton from Louisiana State University.

“What’s more, school fitness tests are rarely used to educate students about fitness and they’re often implemented poorly, so we cannot help but think that class time would be better spent in equipping students with knowledge and skills that more closely support the PE curriculum,” he says.

Previous studies have claimed either intense positive or negative effects, based on students’ and teachers’ memories of fitness tests. The purpose of the new research was to examine how girls’ and boys’ performances in fitness tests predict future attitudes and emotions towards PE. The assumption, of course, is that these attitudes would extend to general fitness as the students got older.

The authors focused on the impact on enjoyment, anger and boredom towards PE. A total of 273 students across four US middle schools filled out an attitudes survey and emotions inventory within two weeks of completing a Fitnessgram™ assessment. According to previous studies, as students progress through middle and high school, positive attitudes to PE decline, especially among girls.

Results were mixed across different elements of the assessment. In the PACER test for cardiovascular endurance, both boys and girls who ran more laps were less likely to report anger towards PE.

Boys’ success was associated with greater enjoyment of PE, whereas girls’ success was not associated with more positive attitudes.

Girls who performed well in the sit-and-reach test — a really bad measure of flexibility — reported favorable attitudes, while there was no effect on higher-performing boys. Meanwhile, performing well in the sit-up test — to assess (poorly) abdominal strength — actually increased rates of anger towards PE for both sexes.

No great surprise there. Sit-ups are about as much fun as having your teeth cleaned.

The researchers also measured the size of the effects on both sexes. They found that fitness test performance explained only 12% of variation in boys’ enjoyment and anger towards PE and in girls it was even lower, at 4%.

Feelings of boredom towards PE were hardly impacted at all by success in the tests. The authors note that these results provide a stark contrast to the passionate debate surrounding the impact that fitness tests might have on student experiences of PE.

The researchers suggest, however, that fitness testing could have more impact if implemented as part of a fitness education curriculum. There is also other research that shows that if fitness testing is done in groups and self-managed, with clear guidelines and expectations, the level of enjoyment of the testing is increased.

They also note several limitations to the study:

  • The data were collected at one time point so they were unable to measure changes in attitude over time.
  • The teachers involved did not follow recommendations about integrating fitness tests into the curriculum. For example, scores were not shared with parents or guardians and were not used to help students learn about or to develop their fitness.
  • Students did not compare their results to previous tests and the data collected were not used to monitor student health.

It therefore remains to be seen whether better implementation could produce a stronger correlation between fitness tests and student attitudes to PE.

What’s really clear from all of this is that the testing itself didn’t get the kids interested in fitness or PE. Chances are pretty good that the PE programs themselves aren’t any more enjoyable for the kids than the testing, either.

Expect more from me on topics relating to how to help kids fall in love with fitness and fitness lifestyles. It’s a critically important topic for their health and for the health of our nation.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Kelly L. Simonton, Kevin Mercier, Alex C. Garn. Do fitness test performances predict students’ attitudes and emotions toward physical education?Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 2019

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