Why most Berkeley 9th-graders aren’t actually failing PE

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)

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. 

Alcohol, marijuana use decline in Berkeley schools
Fight re-launched to save school nutrition programs [11.19.12]
Berkeley district votes to fund at-risk edible programs [04.12.12]
Community seeks life support for school edible programs [03.30.12]
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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  • bgal4

    Translation: we’re special!

  • emraguso

    “Program” in that context was my word choice — and clearly not a good one. Thx for pointing it out.

  • Charles_Siegel

    They seem to be saying that they have lots of students in alternative PE, and they do not test these students for fitness.

    That is not a good excuse. It is important to test students for fitness, whether or not they are in conventional PE. In fact, if you are going to have these alternative programs, it is essential to test the students to see whether the programs are working.

  • bgal4

    BUSD references CHKS routinely, as if current compliance with administering/reporting results of CHKS somehow resolves all other compliance requirements.
    Most of you do not know the back story on CHKS, I do, it is the typical BUSD, undermine, obstruct, manipulate, threat of state audit and finally comply. This wasted at least 8 years in which BUSD could have been using this data constructively, instead, they had internal battles about consent, administration and sharing results. Using the CHKS results to manipulate public perception about such critical topics as AOD, violence and bullying is not is not the best or intended use of a self reported survey.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    You literally cannot make this stuff up.

    There are lots of kids from BHS at the YMCA doing “alternate” fitness routines. Some take it seriously. Others just put in the hours and get a rubber stamp from a staffer. There’s no ongoing adult supervision to ensure that they are actually learning something, unless they take an organized class.

    I don’t even know why this is considered an option. The purpose of PE is as much the education as it is the physical activity and gabbing with your friends on the exercise bikes is not particularly instructive.

  • The Sharkey

    It seems weird that we dropped PE requirements, but persist in dumping tons of money into high school sports. A bit of a disconnect there.

  • The Sharkey

    It ought to be that way, but let’s be honest here, most kids don’t learn anything in PE. In all my years of PE classes all I learned was that I didn’t like PE.

  • Berkeley Citizen

    Berkeley Unified always has an excuse as to why they can’t follow well-established rules and laws… it usually is that they do things so much better, blah, blah, blah…… pathetic.

  • BHS does have a PE requirement: students have to do at least four semesters of PE. Many students do get a PE waiver, which is granted for freshman, JV and varsity sports and for the open-to-abuse independent physical fitness (like the kids at the Y described in another comment).

    In some of the high school programs, however, doing anything other than a PE waiver is very difficult. Students in the IB program — BIHS — do not have a free period for PE during the school day in their first two years because of the number of required subjects. Even in junior and senior year, if the student is on a high-achieving, academic trajectory, there will not be a free period for PE, unless they drop a language or science.

  • MoeHowarrd

    I learned not to drop the soap in the shower.

  • Chris

    The BUSD responses are pathetic at best.

    Chasing loftier goals, when you can’t meet your basic ones, is not a sign of sound judgement.

  • bgal4

    Many of us fought for the waiver system, especially for students involved in outside school sports competition. However, the primary reason for BUSD expansion of waivers is time and money, particularly when the school adopted the 6 period day.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach, teach gym.

    But that aside, high school PE is pretty much the last shot the state gets at mandatory physical activity. And given that we all bear the cost of adults in poor health brought on by “lifestyle choices,” I’d like to see a serious effort at delivering the message whether it’s received or not.

  • bgal4

    I should have said reduced not dropped.

  • Hugh Stickney

    As a recently retired SFUSD PE teacher I resent that Woody Allen quote. Hilarious, but it does not apply to most PE teachers who are trying to impart not only fitness but a love of lifelong physical activity. Too bad we have overloaded the academic schedule so that Art and PE get shorted. Some would say that the cart is ahead of the horse.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I actually agree with you, which is why I’m seeking a greater commitment to PE in my 2nd paragraph. So, please forgive the unkind hilarity — educating the whole child should be our goal.

  • The Sharkey

    Thanks for the clarification, my kids aren’t at BHS yet so I don’t know the details on most of their programs yet.

    It still seems odd that for a system that’s constantly facing one fiscal crisis after another, our public schools are willing to slash and burn music programs, arts programs, shop programs, etc, and never touch the sacred cow of High School Sports.

  • Jane Tierney

    Our teen is doing BHS Crew, and believe me, he does the work. Five organized practices of 2 hours or more per week, and extra races during the semester, make this more than a regular PE class. He is more fit than ever, and has met a great team of kids, varsity and JV alike. If it weren’t for this alternative, he would not be as happy as he is, despite the extra work required.

  • Hugh Stickney

    Thanks for the reply.

    That joke is funniest when told by a good PE teacher! ;D

  • Kemosabe

    This article does a good job explaining BHS ninth grade scores in state testing, it’s intended purpose. As a high school parent, I can vouch for the stringency of the PE waiver system. (The requirements are pain, actually, and yoga classes are no longer accepted). Most after school sports have at least two hours of daily practice and often include weekend games – hardly a lack of activity. Hundreds of freshmen participate in BHS sports.

    The continued negativity about BUSD in Berkeleyside comments astounds me. It seems that many comments are from non–participants who are shouting into an echo chamber in response to those with an axe to grind. I find most parents and kids to be quite pleased overall.

  • BHS guest

    Berkeley high did not adopt the six period day to “afford” small schools. That is factually incorrect and entirely the product of your imagination. BHS had a six period day long before there were any small schools.

  • bgal4

    Not true, I was there on the parent committee.

  • CapWise

    Or, more accurately: “To learn, read. To know, write. To master, teach.”

  • erybil

    If, as the officials are telling us, the stats reported to the state are skewed because the results submitted do not represent the majority of the students who were not tested because they are involved in after school sports programs or “independent” fitness programs, then why isn’t the district testing those students too – not just so that accurate test results can be reported to the state, but also to confirm that such “alternative means” are actually providing at least the fitness training that the PE classes are providing. It just can’t be that hard to schedule a mandatory fitness testing day for all students not enrolled in PE.

  • BHS Guest

    Wrong again. Double period science was eliminated because for double the price BHS was not getting double the results. It complicated the master schedule significantly and reduced students’ access to electives. None of the small schools had anything to do with double period science being eliminated. Budget cuts forced the school to more efficient with its limited resources (teacher FTE) and double period sciences got the ax (along with lots of other things). Read here for a summary of the discussion at the time:

  • bgal4

    I am not going to argue with you, but needless to say, I was very much directly involved and reading a summary does not compare. We, the PTA council parents drafted two alternative proposals to maintain the 7 period day, double period science, split lunch on campus, and a in school day resource period for below proficient math and English students.

    Former Board member Terry Doran drove the removal of double period science, and I participated in many committee discussions with Supt Lawrence at the time.

  • a Berkeley mama

    I have a kid in that program…it’s got potential, but it mandates that the kids do workout classes with adults. I have attended many of these at this point, and, though well attended, they aren’t getting much education out of it. I still haven’t seen enough posture or movement correcting seeminly due to the classes being so large. The main problem, is that the youth classes are for younger kids, and the teens have only one organized class to attend. One. and it isn’t offered everyday. Therefore, adult classes are all that are left! The kids get 15 hours to do independant workouts, and 45 hours must be with the adults….since, as I said, there is only one teen class, as far as we could tell..

    I spent my 9th grade year doing several weeks of every sport we had at my HS. the next 3 years I participated in a rigorous dance program. the 5 hours a week of that, (plus the extra curricular classes that I also enjoyed) gave me a well rounded dance education, and boy was I healthy! And to have it during the day made a huge difference instead of having to go after school to get that hour or two, competing with homework and ruling out other extracurricular activities, such as the opportunity to get the enrichment arts class that my kid wasn’t given, despite having chosen specifically. Uh, separate beef, but no wholly unrelated.

    Also, if there is no PE hour at school, when do these kids get the tests so that they rank in as well?

  • a Berkeley mama

    Yoga classes at the Y are accepted. And most real Yoga is very strenuous…and healthy. As with dance, it can be seen as a wimp out, especially when it isn’t properly taught. Or classes are too crowded.

  • guest

    BUSD has defunded PE. At BHS, the “29 varsity sports” take the place of adequate PE classes. The coaches for these sports are paid only a small stipend, and so are really volunteers. Many of the coaches are great and love the sport and the kids, but sometimes we get what we pay for. It would be great for BUSD to really support the health initiative and hire some PE teachers who could also coach one of those 29 varsity sports. Mostly, the “29 sports” bragging item is just a sham.

  • guest

    High school sports coaches at BHS get a tiny stipend, if anything.

  • Created some infographics for some of the stats in this article:

  • Crew Mom

    clearly this is a measurement problem. but to your point sharkey – my kid is on the crew team, it is a big program something like 70 kids and it’s just one team i know about but i don’t see tons of money. i see a 20 hour per year parent volunteer requirement as well as hella fundraising by the kids and families. if you’d like a BHS Crew baseball cap i’d be happy to send you one! or, if you’d like your name on an oar in a BHS boat, the crew team would be happy to sell you that right for $200. even so i don’t see a ton of money. i see a huge amount of dedication, teamwork, laughable money for coaches, kids and coaches lugging old gym equipment around and borrowing for free unleased space at nearby businesses cuz there’s not enough room at the school for their land workouts. the kids work out 12 hours a week including getting up at 6 am on saturdays to go row on the bay and they work like hell. there is a ton of camraderie, socializing, teamwork, moral support, good values about doing your best, pretty good behavior, a lot of strong students who also egg each other on in the classroom as well as on the water, and not much time for drugs, alcohol and trouble. all in all a pretty good return on investment i’d say.

  • Crew Mom

    Thanks Kemosabe. Pretty darn satisfied BHS parent here. My kid didn’t initially want to go to BHS but now loves it. I think you may be right about the echo chamber.

  • berkopinionator

    If more kids in middle school had access to aquatics programs the 9th grade students would be healthier.

  • Jennifer

    My memories of high school PE involve walking around the track, sitting on the sidelines for basketball, and wearing a very smelly uniform. My daughter has a much better experience at Berkeley High: she competed in Cross Country and is now doing dance and exercise classes at the Y. She’s getting lots of exercise… and more importantly, she is ENJOYING exercise instead of perceiving it as a chore. Berkeley High has the right idea.