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Berkeley students flunk fitness test

By David ScharfenbergDaily Planet staff
Tuesday January 08, 2002

Berkeley seventh-graders scored significantly lower than their counterparts in other school districts on a statewide fitness test conducted in spring 2001 and released by the California Department of Education last month. 

The California Physical Fitness Test, which assesses fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders, also revealed a physical “achievement gap” separating white and Asian students from African-American and Latino students in the fifth and seventh grades. 

The test measures students in six areas: aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extension strength, upper body strength and flexibility. 

The state launched the test in 1999 and administered it again in 2001. Berkeley, like many districts around the state, did not use the prevailing state model in 1999, making a comparison to previous figures impossible. 

Only 34 percent of Berkeley seventh-graders met five of the six fitness standards set out in the 2001 test, compared with 50 percent in the county and 51 percent at the state level. 

Fifth-graders scored slightly higher than the statewide averages, and ninth-graders came in just below the average mark.  

But even those figures disappointed many throughout the district with only 22 percent of fifth-graders and 19 percent of ninth-graders meeting all six standards. 

Still, with budget, maintenance and business systems in disarray, physical education does not appear to be a top priority. 

“Someone needs to pay attention to (physical education) districtwide,” said John Selawsky, a member of the Board of Education. “Having said that, I’m not sure who’s going to do that at this point, and what priority it is.” 

Christine Lim, associate superintendent for instruction, said she was particularly concerned about the poor showing at the seventh-grade level. “It provokes me to inquire with the principals and staff as to why that is,” Lim said. 

Parents, administrators and physical education teachers at the city’s middle schools could not explain the disparity between seventh-graders and other students. But they did suggest a number of reasons for the poor performance of Berkeley students overall. 

“I see a lot of kids being brought, literally, to the front door by their parents,” said Jack Ball, head of the physical education department at King Middle School. “They don’t ride a bike, or walk to school.” 

“As a nation, we hear many times that students are working less outside and are doing more inside,” added Nancy D. Waters, principal of the John Muir Elementary School, making reference to heavy television viewing and video game play. “And, with fast food and parents being so busy – it’s easier to drive through somewhere than to peel a cucumber.” 

Debbie Vigil, a consultant with the California Department of Education, concurred. “Society has a role in this as well,” she said. “With the computer age, kids are finding entertainment other than physical (activity).” 

But, some suggested that funding and policy problems in the district also play a role. “I don’t think that the public schools offer enough physical education,” said Anita Martinez, parent of a seventh-grader at Longfellow Arts & Technology Magnet Middle School, and member of the PTA. “I would like to see more programs and better support.” 

Ball, of the King School, says that, when it comes to budget cuts, physical education has actually fared better than arts and music programs over the last 40 years. But, he suggests that increased funding for smaller class sizes could help. 

At the elementary school level, where regular classroom teachers often take the lead on physical education, it’s a question of scheduling and priorities, with academic subjects such as math and reading often taking top billing. 

“I’m really proud of the quality of our program, but not with the quantity,” said Marlo Warburton, a fourth and fifth grade teacher at John Muir who helps run the physical education program at the school. “We have such time constraints with our instructional minutes that we can only do exercise twice a week.”  

At Berkeley High School, athletic director Robert Traum says a school board policy allowing athletes to skip physical education classes has been destructive. 

“It’s a horrible idea, because it substitutes specialization in one area for the broad background an adolescent needs,” said Traum, arguing that an athlete focused only on swimming or baseball, for instance, fails to develop a whole host of skills explored in physical education classes. 

Athletes, Traum argues, also miss out on important social benefits. For instance, he said, gym classes are more racially-integrated than academic courses that often divide by race when it comes time for advanced placement study. 

Selawsky said the school board has been considering a shift in the policy for six months, but that many parents have lobbied to maintain the policy because it gives athletes more time to take other courses. 

“We’re balancing two things here,” he said, “the students who need to take electives, or even requirements, and what I think is the importance of having a broader physical education program.” 

The Berkeley figures revealed a significant racial disparity in test scores that mirrors the academic “achievement gap.” For instance, among fifth graders, 63 percent of white students and 54 percent of Asian students met five of six standards on the test, compared with 47 percent of Latinos and 39 percent of African-Americans. 

Berkeley educators were surprised by the figures and could not offer solid explanations for the disparities, although they suggested that the same economic and cultural factors that drive the academic achievement gap could play a role in the physical education chasm. 

Dianne Wilson-Graham, consultant for the California Department of Education, said there has been no comprehensive study of the gap at the state level. 

But she said that, in her initial research, schools that have improved the academic gap have also improved the physical gap, suggesting that there may be a link between the two.