Darlene Groves was caught off guard when she received a physical-fitness report from her daughters’ school that ranked them in a “needs improvement” category and suggested they eat more vegetables and exercise more.
The detailed update came from Fitzgerald Elementary School in Arlington, Texas, one of some 11,000 schools nationwide now using a program called Fitnessgram, according to the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, a nonprofit research and education center in Dallas that devised the approach.
Fitnessgram seeks to make physical activity a part of students’ daily life, includes an individualized assessment that gives students information about their aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength and endurance, upper-body strength, and overall flexibility.
“It doesn’t matter to me if they can do push-ups or sit-ups,” Ms. Groves said of her daughters, who will begin 4th and 7th grade next fall. “They had their weight on the paper. Girls are sensitive about their weight. I don’t want them to think they have to be skin and bones and be superathletic.”
The fitness report cards are part of a broader, decade-old movement—often called the “New PE"—that is shaping a philosophy of physical education more focused than in the past on encouraging healthy lifestyles.
“There is a whole generation who have had bad experiences with physical education,” said Greg Welk, the scientific director of Fitnessgram and an assistant professor of health promotion at Iowa State University in Ames.
The Fitnessgram approach gets a ringing endorsement from Phil Lawler, a leading advocate of the new physical education.
A physical education teacher in Naperville, Ill., Mr. Lawler has led a growing movement over the last decade to encourage a new era of physical education. Not only does he issue health report cards at Madison Junior High School in suburban Chicago, but he wants every state to do the same.
Still, the “New PE” movement is about much more than the fitness report card, he points out.
Forget gym classes where the jocks rule and the slow-footed kids get whacked with dodge balls. In Mr. Lawler’s “health club” at Madison Junior High, students use a 40-station fitness center with treadmills, exercise bikes, and a rock-climbing wall.
They wear heart monitors. Cholesterol is checked. And, by senior year, students will have a 14-page fitness transcript. “If PE is going to be turned around, it’s going to have to be a community commitment,” said Mr. Lawler.
Even as childhood obesity has reached what many health experts say are alarming levels, many school districts have slashed gym classes. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a decade ago, 42 percent of high school students attended a daily gym class. Now only 25 percent do.
Still, a growing number of educators and lawmakers are taking a closer look at physical education programs as they recognize that healthy students learn and perform better academically.
In California, lawmakers six years ago required all students in the 5th, 7th, and 9th grades to be assessed by Fitnessgram, though the fitness report cards were optional for districts.
Thanks to a $250,000 federal grant, students in five Tulsa, Okla., elementary and middle schools are participating in a new kind of gym class.
Barbara Marshall, the coordinator for physical education for the 42,000-student Tulsa schools, said the new approach—called Project Health Smart— began after districtwide physical-fitness tests showed students in many low- income and underperforming schools were also coming up short in basic health.
This past school year, students in Tulsa’s gym class learned more about good nutrition. They wore “digiwalkers” on their waists to count their steps during the day. And they received individualized Fitnessgram reports along with their academic report cards.
And this spring, for the first time, schools reported the percentage of students who passed Fitnessgram tests. “It was really pathetic to see the results,” Ms. Marshall acknowledged. “But we’re picking up momentum.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Fitness Report Cards Part of ‘New PE’ Movement