The use of fitness testing in schools has long been a topic for debate. Although already quite common in most secondary schools, its purpose, value and place in the curriculum remain under question. So, should we be using fitness testing in schools?
There are several reasons for testing the fitness of children in schools, as detailed later in this post. Despite these reasons fitness testing in schools remains up for debate. In this blog, adapted from Promoting Active Lifestyles in Schools, we’re going to look at some recommendations and practical ideas to help you make a decision about the use of fitness testing in schools.
Defining physical fitness
Physical fitness has been defined as a set of attributes involving the ability to perform physical activity. It’s often described in terms of health-related or performance-related aspects (Caspersen, Powell & Christenson, 1985).
The health related parts are usually associated with specific health outcomes. These normally include cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition.
Reasons for monitoring children’s fitness
There have been many reasons put forward for monitoring children’s fitness levels over the years. A growing link between health and fitness and health outcomes in children (Lloyd, Colley & Tremblay, 2010) has strengthened these reasons. It also indicates the potential value of promoting and monitoring not only children’s physical activity, but also their physical fitness. Fitness testing in schools can serve a number of purposes (Cale & Harris, 2009), including those listed below:
- Promoting physical activity
- Developing skills in goal setting, self-monitoring and self-testing
- Promoting learning and positive attitudes
- Motivating pupils
- Evaluating fitness programmes
- Identifying pupils with athletic potential
- Screening pupils for health issues
- Diagnosing fitness needs for individual exercise prescription and improvement
Concerns about fitness testing in schools
The authors of Promoting Active Lifestyles in Schools, Dr Jo Harris and Professor Lorraine Cale have said that ‘fitness tests simply determine the obvious, at best only distinguishing the mature or motivated from the immature or unmotivated’. As well as those ‘blessed with fit genes and those not so blessed’. Although these disadvantages aren’t particularly problematic on their own, they’re extremely relevant when promoting learning through fitness testing. When trying to interpret results, this is especially significant. It’s important to know what information, key messages and feedback to relay back to your students. Additionally, many of the concerns raised about fitness testing in schools aren’t necessarily about the tests or monitoring, but how it is carried out. Other concerns about the use of fitness testing in schools include the purposes of monitoring and potential negative consequences for students.
Mode of implementation
Concerns have been expressed over how fitness monitoring is used within the curriculum. For example, fitness testing is sometimes treated as an almost irrelevant supplement to the curriculum. However, in other cases, fitness testing can dominate an entire fitness education programme. This imbalance is considered particularly important if fitness testing comes at the expense of:
- Promoting the process of being active
- Providing activities that promote physical activity
- Developing children’s knowledge and understanding of physical activity and physical fitness
It can give the impression that physical fitness is more important than health and physical activity. Leading to an overemphasis on fitness and performance, rather than on health and physical activity. However, it’s also been argued that the goal should be to influence the process of physical activity rather than the product of fitness (Cale & Harris, 2009b).
Other concerns have been raised about some of the common assumptions underlying fitness and fitness monitoring, the messages these assumptions might generate and any possible consequences for students. Firstly, there’s little evidence to support the commonly held view and rationale that fitness monitoring promotes healthy lifestyles. As well as the thought that physical activity motivates young people and develops the knowledge and skills that are important to sustain engagement in an active lifestyle (Cale & Harris, 2009b).
In opposition, other researchers have expressed concerns that fitness testing can be counterproductive in achieving this goal. It can be unpleasant, uncomfortable, embarrassing and meaningless for many children. Also, scores can be inaccurate, misleading, unfair and demotivating. (Cale & Harris, 2009b; Keating, 2003; Rice, 2007; Naughton, Carlson, & Greene, 2006). This concern led Harris and Cale to conclude that fitness testing might represent a misdirected effort in the promotion of healthy lifestyles and that time could be better spent elsewhere.
Another common assumption is that children’s fitness primarily reflects the amount of physical activity they do. Therefore, those who do well in fitness tests are active and those who do poorly may be more inactive. In reality, the relationship between physical fitness and physical activity is low among children. A child’s activity level cannot be judged from his or her fitness level (Cale & Harris, 2009b). Whilst physical activity can have a positive and important impact on an individual’s physical fitness, it is also influenced by various other factors, including maturation and genetics. To read more on maturation, check out our recent blog post from Dr Melitta McNarry entitled Maturational threshold in young athletes – Are we missing the point?
Questionable fitness tests and practices
Theoretically, fitness testing can be used to promote safe and healthy practices. However, some of these involve children performing tests that arguably violate healthy behaviour and to some, common sense (Cale & Harris, 2009b). For example, questionable practices cited in one study, included the use of maximal fitness tests, the public posting of test scores and the monitoring of pupil’s weight or body composition (Cale, Harris, & Chen, 2014).
Concerns about using the multistage fitness test with children focuses on the fact it was developed for use with elite athletes. It carries an element of risk and can be overly public, plus it is often misused. This can lead to the embarrassment of some children (Cale, 2016). Displaying fitness test scores for comparisons seems inappropriate given the many factors that can influence performance and test scores (Cale, Harris, & Chen, 2014).
The third area of concern—the weighing and measuring of children—is clearly a sensitive issue. This practice can lead to body dissatisfaction, development of harmful relationships with food and even eating disorders. Something which is a serious and increasing problem in many countries, including the UK. It’s particularly prevalent among adolescents, more specifically adolescent girls. Cale and Harris (2009b) have argued that ‘it is not necessary to measure any individual to tell them something that they already know, and more importantly, no child needs to be measured to be helped to enjoy being physically active’; moreover, ‘overemphasising “fat” measurements may simply contribute to a mental health problem or to a physical health issue’.
Interpretation and Use of Fitness Monitoring Data
The practice of applying norm-referenced or criterion-referenced standards when interpreting fitness test results is common. Normative standards involve comparing a child’s score with that of a reference group. Whereas, criterion-referenced standards are absolute and specify the minimum levels of fitness thought to be required for health. Criterion-referenced standards are considered most attractive from theoretical, pedagogical and philosophical points of view. This is because they clearly identify a level of fitness that is thought to be sufficient to maintain health. They are also informative in categorising individuals as either working towards or exceeding minimum standards.
However, at the same time, the use of both is subject to limitations. For example, the validity of some criterion-referenced standards is questionable and may seem somewhat arbitrary. This could provide some pupils with little incentive to move towards meeting the required fitness levels. Furthermore, the use of criterion-referenced standards could lead to misclassification of fitness levels. Norm tables are also limited in that they do not indicate desired levels of physical fitness or provide diagnostic feedback about whether one’s fitness level is adequate. In addition, they imply that ‘more is always better’.
Fitness testing recommendations
These issues and concerns have not been included to put you off monitoring children’s fitness. But to highlight the fact that the positives of monitoring (including learning) can’t be taken for granted. Plus there are things that you need to be aware of when monitoring children. It’s been argued that the fear of fitness assessment shouldn’t be allowed to outweigh the potential benefits and value it has for students. Therefore it’s important that, rather than being overly critical of fitness testing, we should reflect on and promote good pedagogical practice in this regard.
Of course, the general consensus from various sources seems to be that if fitness monitoring is used appropriately and incorporated as a component of a broad health education programme, it can serve as a valuable part of the curriculum. It can also play a role in supporting healthy lifestyles and physical activity (afPE, 2015a; Cale, 2016; Cale & Harris, 2009a; Lloyd et al., 2010; Cale, Harris, & Chen, 2014; Rowland, 2007; Silverman, Keating, & Phillips, 2008).
To meet these criteria, monitoring should be the following:
- Developmentally appropriate
- Offer a positive, educational experience for all learners
- And help promote healthy, active lifestyles.
In terms of developmental appropriateness, it’s questionable whether fitness monitoring and testing are appropriate for primary school children (or children under the age of nine). In 2015, in response to a recommendation to introduce fitness testing in primary schools, the Association for Physical Education (afPE) published a position statement. It said that it didn’t support formal fitness testing in primary schools. The group considers such testing to be a backwards step in terms of promoting healthy and active lifestyles.
Fitness testing in schools is commonplace but it remains controversial. The reasons for monitoring and testing children’s physical fitness have been heavily discussed. Your decisions about fitness monitoring should be informed by the critique of fitness monitoring. This can help you address issues related to the purpose and implementation of monitoring and testing. As well as, the interpretation and use of the data.
If fitness testing in schools is used appropriately, subjected to informed critique and incorporated as just one aspect of a broad and holistic health education programme, then it can serve as a valuable part of a curriculum. Also, it can play a role in supporting healthy lifestyles and physical activity. Recommendations, guidelines and practical ideas are available to help you implement fitness monitoring and realise its potential to facilitate pupils’ learning. With this guidance and support, you can adopt a healthy, activity-promoting approach to fitness monitoring.