Tests show drop in student fitness from last year | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tests show drop in student fitness from last year

William Ferchland
Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Physical education teacher Steve Hayward leads a class of fourth-graders from Sierra House Elementary School through a stretching exercise.

Results from a California fitness test indicate a drop in the healthiness of fifth, seventh and ninth-grade students in Lake Tahoe Unified School District as compared to last year.

Some attributed the drop in fitness from last year at least in part to the loss of four elementary physical education teachers from the district due to budget cuts.

Less than a quarter – 23 percent – of 366 fifth-graders met all six fitness standards when tested in the spring, according to the results released last week. Those students are now in sixth grade. The standards measured were cardiovascular endurance, body fat content, abdominal strength, leg extension, upper body strength and flexibility.

In the school year prior, 51 percent of 395 fifth-graders achieved all six standards, 28 percentage points above the most recent test.

Steve Hayward, the lone physical education teacher in the district, partly attributed the change to the different fitness levels of students in each grade. For example, the fitness of fifth-graders will be different than the next year’s crop of fifth-graders.

Yet Hayward and some district officials pointed to the loss of four elementary physical education teachers in causing the decline. The four were released for the 2003-04 school year when the district’s board of education voted to include their price tag of $205,000 into a budget cut of $2.7 million to offset lost revenue from declining enrollment.

“I think it’s a direct correlation,” Hayward said. “It’s not just the fitness level. You’re seeing kids not being as familiar with the test, teachers not as familiar in giving the test. So it’s going to go down.”

With help from Hayward and a part-time aide, the district is able to provide 30 minutes of physical education by a trained teacher to all elementary classes. Middle and high school students have separate physical education courses.

California education code mandates students have an average of 200 minutes in physical education every two weeks. The slack at the elementary level is picked up by classroom teachers who may be unfamiliar with the subject, which they have to shoulder with their regular load.

Sierra House Elementary teacher Pat Mitchell dropped off his fourth-grade class to Hayward’s care Monday morning. Mitchell said he doesn’t mind teaching physical education, but the additional duty cuts into time he uses for preparing lesson plans, grading assignments and other teaching needs.

Before the cut to physical education was made, Mitchell said he used the two 45-minute periods his class spent with a physical education teacher each week as “prep time” for his courses.

To compensate for the loss of prep time, the district expanded lunch periods and told teachers to split their lunch breaks eating lunch and preparing class work, Mitchell said.

Jodi Dayberry, a first-grade teacher and vice president of the teachers’ union, said the “creative juggling” by the district is ineffective.

In addition, the increased number of students at the elementary level from two school closures has a crowding effect and creates a greater need for prep time, Dayberry said.

Space at Sierra House’s cafeteria has proved a precious commodity for teachers trying to conduct exercises for their students during snowy days. Dayberry said she brings her students into the cafeteria first thing in the morning.

Board member Barbara Bannar, a vocal proponent of physical education in the schools, said the results are aligned with a national problem of childhood obesity.

“I do know the whole board is very much aware of the benefit of having physical education teachers, and we’re trying to do something to address that, but the financial situation we’re in is really bad,” she said.

Both Hayward and Bannar said the decline of fifth-grade fitness levels might have something to do with inexperienced teachers administering the tests. Hayward said he oversaw two of the tests: the cardiovascular endurance test of running a mile and body fat measurement.

Flexibility was a weak point for fifth-graders while those in seventh and ninth-grade had low scores in running.

The district’s scores were submitted in the spring. California released the results of the 1.3 million students tested last week.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell was disappointed with the findings.

“The 2004 results indicate an unacceptable percentage of California public school students did not achieve the minimum fitness levels for each of the fitness areas tested,” O’Connell said. “We have a long way to go to eradicate the silent epidemic of childhood obesity and poor nutritional health.”

The one-mile run to test cardiovascular endurance is considered by state officials as the most important area because of its influence on overall health. Roughly half of all students in the three grades met the lowest standard for the test.

The address of http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/pf/overview.asp allows those interested to view the report online.

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com

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