District officials say after-school sports can count toward PE credits, but also make it hard to administer state fitness exams to all the requisite students, especially at the ninth-grade level. Photo: Berkeley Unified School District

A recent state report that includes fitness test results for Berkeley students in three grades shows the district’s ninth-graders falling far short of county and state benchmarks.

Berkeley Unified School District officials said last week, however, that the results actually are an indicator of a more holistic approach to health, rather than a sign that Berkeley teens are out of shape.

The 2012 Physical Fitness Test Results, released in mid-November, were given to 1.3 million fifth-­, seventh­- and ninth-­graders statewide; they make up more than 93% of all students enrolled in those grades in California public schools, according to the state Department of Education.

The test in its current form came about in 1996, and includes evaluation in six fitness areas, such as aerobic capacity, body composition and abdominal strength. Teachers pay special attention to the first two areas.

“While aerobic capacity is an indicator of physical fitness, body composition is perhaps the most important indicator of who will develop future health problems,” according to information released by the state Department of Education about the results.

Students are ranked, for these two criteria, as either healthy (“in the Healthy Fitness Zone”), “needs improvement” or “high-risk.”

While a greater, or similar, percentage of Berkeley fifth- and seventh-graders (as compared to the state) fall into the “healthy” category in these areas, the high school fitness results appear to tell quite a different story.

In aerobic capacity, for example, 62.4% of ninth-graders statewide are considered healthy, with 24.7% needing improvement. In body composition, 15.7% need improvement, and 59% are listed as healthy.

Overall 2012 physical fitness test results for the BUSD. Source: California Department of Education (Click to view larger)

In Berkeley, 74.6% reportedly need improvement in aerobic capacity, with just 21.3% healthy; 66.5% appear to need improvement in body composition, and 23.6% are reported as healthy.

If that didn’t seem bad enough, Berkeley ninth-graders also apparently score dismally on another key metric of the state PE test: one that shows in how many of those six areas students land in the “healthy fitness zone,” or HFZ. (That is, they show a healthy capacity in each skill or assessment.)

Berkeley fifth-graders outpace students statewide (49%) in the top tiers, with nearly 60% scoring healthy marks in five or six of the measured categories. Seventh-graders in Berkeley are pretty much on par with the state average, with about 53% listed as healthy in five or more areas.

But, while nearly 60% of ninth-graders statewide succeed in this upper echelon, only 21% of Berkeley ninth-graders do, according to the posted test results. And 61% are listed as meeting the healthy standard in zero of the six categories.

“Healthy Fitness Zone” results for the BUSD. Source: California Department of Education (Click to view larger)
“Healthy Fitness Zone” results for the BUSD. Source: California Department of Education (Click to view larger)

There is, in fact, an explanation

Vice-Principal Kristin Glenchur of Berkeley High School described the scores, via email, as “quite skewed.” The problem, she explained, is that more than half of the school’s freshman “are not enrolled in PE and satisfy their PE requirement through alternate means.”

She said the school gave the physical fitness test to about 280 students in 2011-12, but the state “compares these scores to the total number of 9th graders at BHS.” (The state report says 623 students were tested.)

Co-superintendents Neil Smith (center) and Javetta Cleveland (right), November 2012. Photo: Berkeley Unified School District

BUSD Co-superintendent Neil Smith said teachers face “some difficulty testing ninth-graders” because many of them fulfill their PE credits via alternative means, such as after-school sports, off-site fitness classes or other independent efforts.

Because the district uses such a different approach to PE than many in the state, he said, the test results can cause confusion.

“I’m not sure it’s meaningful for parents, the way they’re announced,” Smith said.

Official: Berkeley goes “above and beyond” in health education efforts

Debbi D’Angelo, director of Evaluation and Assessment for the district, said the state report is simply “not a valid measurement” for the fitness of BUSD’s ninth-graders. Students who fulfill their two years of PE requirements with a yoga class, or some other sport outside the classroom, aren’t able to be assessed for the state report.

(She noted that the process to get these alternative PE minutes approved is quite “stringent,” involving sign-offs by representatives of verified programs, and different check-off sheets.)

D’Angelo said the district makes sure school leaders get the state report, but that it’s understood to be “part of a bigger story.” That story includes efforts such as the Healthy Kids Survey, the nutrition and gardening curriculum and 2020 Vision.

“In Berkeley, there’s a more global effort to look at gardening, nutrition, the whole body of the student,” she said. “It’s a real true caring. It’s not just about the healthy fitness zone. We go above and beyond what the state does.”

The district’s approach to health, she continued, may also foster a deeper connection to a healthy lifestyle than the traditional school PE approach.

“It keeps students turned on to their interest in a sport, or yoga,” she said. “They’re able to pursue that, rather than being force-fed to dress out for PE.”

District officials say Berkeley schools focus on the whole health of students with programs such as its cooking and gardening curriculum, which families advocated for at a recent School Board meeting. Photo: Berkeley Unified School District

Other Berkeley PE test highlights from the 2012 Physical Fitness Test

  • About 52% of Berkeley fifth-graders who were described as “economically disadvantaged” score “healthy” in five or six of the fitness standards; about 66% of “not economically disadvantaged” kids do.
  • The contrast is even starker in seventh grade, with 39% of the disadvantaged students marked as healthy in five or six of the standards, and 67% of their counterparts meeting this same bar.
  • There are racial disparities as well. Among white students, 71% of fifth-graders and 64% of seventh-graders are in the healthiest group (meeting five or six of the standards). For hispanic students, 57% of fifth-graders are in this group, and 50% of seventh-graders are. For black students, 49% of fifth-graders are in this group, and 40% of seventh-graders are. For Asian kids, 46% of fifth-graders are in this group, and 53% of seventh-graders are.
  • About one in three economically disadvantaged fifth-graders fell into the high-risk category for body composition, while fewer than one in five of their “not economically disadvantaged” counterparts did. Of seventh-graders, 31.6% of disadvantaged kids were said to be high-risk for body composition, while only 13.6% of their counterparts were. (Berkeley students had healthier scores than the state average for both groups in both grades.)
  • Body composition score results didn’t show big changes since the prior year. (Earlier years were available for comparison but appeared to use a different scale.)

According to the BUSD website, Berkeley Unified had 4,040 elementary students as of 2011, 1,940 middle school students, and 3,430 high school students.

Find more detailed results, including down to the school level, on the state Board of Education website. 

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2020 Vision symposium highlights progress in Berkeley [10.15.12]
Using 2020 Vision to help Berkeley’s children [03.08.12]

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...