Push-ups, curl-ups and the dreaded one-mile run are a staple of childhood in US schools. But California may put a stop to the tests.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed suspending the physical fitness tests at the state’s schools over concerns that they promote bullying and body discrimination.
Under current state requirements, students in grades five, seven and nine are required to take a physical fitness test, which includes the one-mile run, curl-ups, push-ups and a measure of body mass index.
While the administration argues the physical assessments can cause students of different body shapes to be body-shamed or bullied, the BMI screening is particularly sensitive because it asks students to select whether they are female or male.
A number of school districts have complained to the state that this is discriminatory against students who identify as non-binary, according to H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Finance Department.
If the proposal, which was included in Newsom’s budget bill for next year, passes, physical fitness testing would be suspended for three years.
“Dispelling myths, breaking down stereotypes, and improving school climate is one way California is working to keep all students safe and healthy, consistent with the Governor’s commitment to a California that respects all students,” Palmer said in an email.
During the proposed three-year suspension, the Department of Education would consult with experts on fitness, physical education, gender identity and students with disabilities to determine whether the test needs to be modified or a new assessment should be developed.
The proposal comes as California’s annual reports of the fitness test since the 2014-2015 school year show a decline in the percentage of students scoring healthy. The share of students meeting the healthy fitness zone for all six fitness standards (aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extension strength and upper body strength) decreased by 3.3 percentage points for fifth graders, 4.3 points for seventh graders and 4.6 points for ninth graders.
But Palmer says Newsom’s proposal will not affect students’ physical fitness.
“The pause in administering tests won’t affect the amount or level of (physical education) that kids receive from their school,” Palmer said, adding that PE classes would still be a graduation requirement.
Gender identity advocates praise the move
Advocates for gender identity are praising Newsom’s proposal as a step forward.
“There is an objective in measuring a student’s fitness. The problem is when it’s defined by gender,” Joel Baum, senior director for professional development at Gender Spectrum, told CNN.
The current fitness test sets different criteria for boys and girls. For example, a 12-year-old girl is considered healthy if she can do more than four modified pull-ups. But a boy of the same age is considered healthy if he can do more than seven pull-ups, according to FITNESSGRAM.
This difference in standards can put transgender and non-binary students in a tough spot, possibly even in danger, Baum said.
“If I’m a transgender boy and nobody knows, and then I don’t meet the standards of a boy physically, I’m put in a difficult situation. Either I don’t meet the standards and take the according grade or I compromise my own privacy and tell my teacher I was actually born as a girl,” Baum said, adding that this can lead to bullying of the transgender student.
When a student who identifies as non-binary is pushed to select male or female on the BMI assessment, Baum says, that forces them to claim an identity that’s not their own.
“It’s simply important that kids feel seen by the school that they go to,” Baum said. “By recognizing non-binary people and using the right pronouns, that’s a huge acknowledgment of someone’s reality and experience, and it’s affirming.”
BMI isn’t even an accurate measure of fitness, some say
BMI is commonly used in the US to measure obesity. You divide your weight (in pounds) by your height (in inches) squared, and multiply that number by 703. If the resulting number is 30 or higher, a person is considered obese. But in recent years, BMI has come under scrutiny because it doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle, which can be an issue for athletic people.
Even former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would be considered obese when he won the top bodybuilding title of Mr. Olympia in 1974, Schwarzenegger’s spokesman told the Associated Press.
“Whether the state uses fitness tests or not, Governor Schwarzenegger believes that the most important thing is that our students have access to daily physical education classes to promote a healthy and fit lifestyle,” Schwarzenegger’s the spokesman said.