Richardson, TX_Ten-year-old Peter Choi said he prefers playing dodgeball to crunching out abdominal curl-ups. But the modified sit-ups that the fifth-grader at Arapaho Classical Magnet School says sometimes make his stomach hurt are here to stay, part of the statewide physical fitness test introduced Thursday by the Texas Education Agency.
State officials believe the Fitnessgram test, which allows physical education teachers to record and compare fitness levels of students, will help change what one health expert called "the fitness and fatness of our youth in Texas." The test - which measures aerobic capacity, body composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility - will be used in every gym class in the state in grades three and up.
"The health and overall fitness of our kids has an importance of a nature that a lot of people have not grasped," said Jeff Kloster, the TEA's associate commissioner for health and safety. "We are looking at over 3 million lives we will touch in the state of Texas this year."
The Legislature required mandatory testing in a bill passed earlier this year. The bill also mandates 30 minutes of daily "moderate to vigorous" physical activity, or 135 minutes a week, for children up to fifth grade. For students in sixth through eighth grades, 30 minutes a day, 125 minutes a week or 225 minutes over two weeks is required.
The emphasis on fitness is needed in Texas, lawmakers said. Forty-two percent of the state's fourth graders, 39 percent of eighth-graders and 36 percent of 11th-graders are overweight or at risk of being overweight, according to a 2007 report from the Texas comptroller. The same study concluded that the more education people get, the less likely they are to be overweight or obese.
More than 8,000 Texas schools will receive the Fitnessgram test this fall to prepare for the spring testing period. Results from the first testing period will go to the TEA to get a picture of overall fitness among Texas students, who will be retested annually.
Health experts say there is a correlation between physical fitness and good grades.
"Students who are fit and healthy have an academic edge over those who do not," Arapaho Classical principal Susan Horowitz said.
The Fitnessgram test, developed by aerobics pioneer Dr. Kenneth Cooper, includes a skin fold test, curl-ups and push-ups. Another exercise tests flexibility, with students sitting with one bent leg and one straight leg and then reaching forward as far as they can.
In the trunk lift, which tests trunk extensor strength, students lie on their stomachs and raise their upper body while the teacher measures the distance between the students' chins and the floor. The last test is called the pacer, a paced 20-meter run that increases in intensity as time progresses.
The results are recorded on a report card that allows parents and teachers to identify the physical strengths and weaknesses of each student. Results, unattached to students' names, also go to the TEA, which will compare the fitness data to students' grades, attendance, obesity, disciplinary problems and school meal programs.
Arapaho Classical's Lisa Jackson, a gym teacher for 30 years, said she sees more obese students today than three decades ago.
"Teachers who have not been using the fitness test, it gives them a starting point for designing their curriculum to get their kids healthier and more fit," Jackson said.