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A New Kind of Testing in Schools

Lenora Barron, like many physical education teachers, was frustrated. But instead of letting her frustration get the better of her, she got active and took a community right along with her.

With money disappearing from state and local budgets, schools are forced to operate with fewer resources and maintain the same performance levels. The budget crunch has intensified the focus on academic excellence as measured through standardized reading and math tests. Schools need to ensure that time and money are available for these courses.

Unfortunately, this often means resources are pulled away from other important courses, such as physical education and health, subjects that are not included in standardized testing. This is happening despite evidence citing that students reporting more physical activity also achieve higher grades.

So at a time when there is an alarming increase in childhood obesity (more than one in every three North Carolina kids is overweight or obese), kids are getting less physical education and activity than ever during the school day.

Like many across the state, physical education teachers in Cabarrus County don’t see their students on a set schedule. For some students, physical education class is once a week; for others it is once every six days; and sometimes classes get canceled altogether due to an assembly or other school program.

Fortunately, Barron and other physical education teachers are not taking this news sitting down. They have signed up to be a part of the In-School Prevention of Obesity and Disease (IsPOD) program, which is part of the larger community-wide effort known as the Childhood Obesity Prevention Demonstration Project (COPDP). With the limited amount of time in the day, physical education teachers are learning to make every minute count. Barron hopes that participating in the IsPOD program will help maximize the impact her classes have and enable her to truly make a difference for the students in her county.

So what actions are they taking? Through the IsPOD program, teachers in Cabarrus County are participating in training on the SPARK curriculum, which focuses on teaching healthy lifestyles, motor skills, movement knowledge, and social and personal skills. With this new knowledge, teachers are now focusing more on vigorous activity, fitness and sports skills, enjoyment of physical education, academic achievement and increasing activity levels outside of the school day. The SPARK training has helped teachers make their classes more active and fun, maximizing the benefits the kids receive during class.

IsPOD also trains schools to collect fitness data on each student, including strength, flexibility, endurance and Body Mass Index (BMI) through FITNESSGRAM. Barron believes the data gained not only from her students, but others around the state will open the door for new and improved policies and decisions to be made about children’s health and activity opportunities in school, a measure necessary to bring physical education back into schools at a more regular occurrence. Different from other state testing methods, FITNESSGRAM assesses kids as individuals to identify if they are in a healthy zone versus comparing kids to each other.

It is widely known that new programs and additional testing in schools tend to be met with some skepticism. This case is no exception. Administration and parents both like to see immediate results. Instead of letting this feedback ruffle her feathers, Barron just answers, “With this type of intervention, results will be further down the road.”

They are also receiving feedback from parents on the FITNESSGRAM results. Some parents are happy that their children are being tested while others don’t want their kids tested at all. Barron has found the best solution is to keep the parents informed of what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Parents are told regularly how their kids are doing in the academic classroom, but Barron believes it is equally important to know if their kids are healthy. There are kids that are overweight, some that are underweight and some that are in a healthy weight range. This is information that a parent should be told right along with their reading and writing scores.

Not only should they know how their child is health-wise, they also need to be educated about what those ratings mean. Weight issues in children do not necessarily need to be addressed the same way that adult issues are. Kids gain and lose weight, shoot up in height and fill out. This makes it hard for parents to know when there may be a real concern, which is why the school’s efforts include educating parents about the stages of development their child will go through.

Barron’s advice to other teachers and districts thinking of implementing this type of physical education programming?

“Open communication with parents and staff,” she says. “Explain the purpose of the evaluations to staff and administration because it is important to have their buy in. There is so much testing in schools already but they need to understand that health is the most important. We need to be looking at the whole child. Part of our job is to help other educators understand that active, healthy and fit children are better learners.”

So as schools systems look at where to trim the fat from their budgets, it might be good to review the FITNESSGRAM data and see how they can work to improve their students’ health and unleash the academic benefits that lie within.

For this North Carolina county, the challenges of a shrinking budget and less time for physical education has provided them a chance to incorporate new and innovative methods of introducing physical activity and healthy living into the lives of their students. Turning frustration and obstacles into opportunities and possibilities, that is one of the true goals of education. Making our children happier and healthier in the process, that is the gift of this school system.

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