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Fitness Testing

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Should we?

I recall, years ago, beginning a PE teaching position in a (relatively) newly constructed school. I was excited to see the facilities and begin teaching! I had a clean, air-conditioned gym where I wouldn't be sharing (e.g. competing with another class making noise, etc.) and there were plenty of resources for students to access. One of the first things I noticed as I entered the gym was the "Fitness Wall of Fame." This, very visible bulletin board, consisted of the top students in each grade for different fitness activities (don't recall exactly what exercises/tasks they were for but I'm sure we can make similar guesses). Although I was excited for those few individuals that made the Wall of Fame, it likely wasn't the first time these individuals were praised for their achievements in PE and/or Sport. I was left wondering about those students who never got praised about movement... ever. Those children who needed it because, well you know, they may lack the physical competence, motivation, and confidence to be active for life. Yeah, what about them? It did not sit well with me and of course, at least during my time at the school, the Fitness Wall of Fame was no longer.

I have taught at schools, and used curricula, that does not require fitness testing. Looking back on my 12 years of teaching PE, fitness testing wasn't something I had conversations with people about, nor did I do much reading up on because, contextually, it wasn't relevant to my students. Now that I'm working with schools and their PE programming, fitness testing conversations take place - fitness testing happens - more than I thought. In some places, it is required.

So, for this blog, I first set out to do some reading and find out what the literature said. I've mostly looked at three articles and a book. The citations are listed below:

Alfrey, L. (2023). An expansive learning approach to transforming traditional fitness testing in health and physical education: Student voice, feelings and hopes. Curriculum Studies in Health and Physical Education.

Cale, L., & Harris, J. (2009). Fitness testing in Physical Education: A misdirected effort in promoting healthy lifestyles and physical activity? Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 14, 89-108.

Fletcher, T., Ní Chróinín, D., Gleddie, D., & Beni, S. (2021). Meaningful physical education: An approach for teaching and learning. Routledge.

Safron, C., & Landi, D. (2022). Beyond. the BEEPs: Affect, FitnessGram®, and diverse youth. Sport, Education and Society, 27(9), 1020-1034.

With this, and with the idea from Alfrey's (2023) latest article regarding fitness testing in schools, I've explored how fitness testing/units might look within the Meaningful PE approach. Hopefully, by the end of this blog, you will be updated with some teaching recommendations in terms of fitness testing and/or health-related fitness units.

Fitness Testing - Background

What we include within our PE curriculum, the teaching and learning, is vital for the development of students' knowledge, understanding, and skills needed to be physically active for life (Cale & Harris, 2009). Some teachers include fitness testing within their curriculum. The Fitness-Gram® assessment, for example, is used in all fifty states in the U.S. and in at least 14 different countries (Corbin et al., 2013, as cited in Safron & Landi, 2022). In the U.S., teachers are mandated to have students complete fitness tests (Alfrey, 2023). Fitness may include the beep test, vertical jump, 20 m sprint, base jump, arm strength, flexibility (e.g. sit and reach test) and agility tests.

Does Fitness Testing Serve Its Purpose?

Fitness is justified by some because there is a belief that it promotes physical activity, identifies health-related needs of students, and guides students, with the help of goal setting, to improve their own individual fitness (Harris & Cole, 2006; Silverman et al., 2008, as cited in Safron & Landi, 2022). Fitness tests claim they encourage safe and healthy practice and that they develop good fitness behaviours (Cale & Harris, 2009).

Cale & Harris (2009) shared that fitness testing can:

  • Motivate some children to beat their previous best score/time

  • Be motivational if it is health-related and connected to physical activity

  • Be used to stimulate interest in exercise

  • Educate students about the different components of fitness

  • Aid learning and support children in maintaining a healthy lifestyle

  • Help students understand the various ways in which their body can move

  • Inform students about their own fitness levels and help them to make informed decisions

  • Provide students knowledge of their strengths and limitations of their own bodies

  • Help students learn how to improve their personal fitness

So does fitness testing promote physical activity for life? Does it motivate students to be active? Does it help students develop the knowledge and skills needed to be engaged in physical activity? Is the above all true?

According to Cale & Harris (2009), fitness testing may not always do what it is intended to do.

Problems With Fitness Testing in PE

Some PE teachers feel it is their responsibility to focus on, and measure, students' physical fitness (Cale & Harris, 2005). Here are some current issues with fitness testing in schools:

  • The purpose, or the 'why', is often unclear to students (Alfrey, 2023; Hopple & Graham, 1995).

  • Fitness testing can minimize motivation, cause discomfort, stress, label, and embarrass students in front all their classmates (Cale & Harris, 2009).

  • Students who have their body composition and weight measured in front of peers, as well as performing below peers in fitness testing, can result in embarrassment and negative memories into adulthood (Ladwing et al., 2018).

  • Criterion- and norm-referenced tests represent minimum levels of fitness for students to achieve which provides little incentive for maximum improvement (Cale & Harris, 2009).

  • Criterion- and norm-referenced tests are structured by male and female scoring categories (Landi, 2019, as cited by Safron & Landi, 2022). This example of gender being binary excludes/disrespects non-binary, intersex, and transgender bodies (Safron & Landi, 2022).

  • It can result in the majority of females having negative experiences toward the fitness testing (Lodewyk & Muir, 2017). Fitness testing is one of the reasons why females choose not to participate in PE (Davis et al., 2018).

  • Many students do not see fitness testing as meaningful nor do they feel they learn anything during fitness testing (Alfrey, 2023).

  • Experiences from fitness testing can have a negative impact on being physically active for a lifetime (Corbin, 2010, as cited by Alfrey, 2023).

  • School PE programs, by itself, simply does not have the time to provide the training stimulus for improving fitness (Naughton et al., 2006).

  • Assumption that a "fit" child is physically active. Fitness levels in school-aged children and youth is not a reflection of the amount of physical activity performed. Physical activity is a behaviour (process), while fitness is a parameter (product) (Cale & Harris, 2009). Fitness is largely influenced by genetic and maturational factors (Cale & Harris, 2009). School-aged children have little decision making opportunities regarding their lifestyles and behaviours (Cale & Harris, 2005).

How Can We Make Fitness Testing Meaningful?

Fitness testing should be implemented if it is meaningful, relevant, and has a positive influence on motivating students to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle (Cale & Harris, 2009).

Below is a visual created to help frame how teachers might address fitness testing to ensure it is meaningful for all students. This of course is using the Meaningful PE approach. I have linked the website to Meaningful PE at the top of the blog. Please take a look through the visual!

I am not going to say too much regarding the visual. Hopefully, it is helpful (especially for those who are using fitness testing in their school).

Something I didn't mention, but was pointed out by students in Alfrey's (2023) paper: teachers also need to appropriately prepare students by informing them when fitness testing is taking place. This may assist students with the "motor competence" feature of Meaningful PE. As noted by Alfrey (2023), students appreciate the warning of fitness testing so that they can be mentally and physically prepared.

Providing students with voice and choice is consistently promoted within the Meaningful PE approach (e.g. optimal challenge, fun, personally relevant). With this in mind, Meaningful PE might be a solution to help provide students with a comfortable and meaningful learning experience during fitness testing.

The next time you are teaching a fitness unit that involves fitness testing, consider asking yourself these questions: Does fitness testing promote physical activity for life? Does it motivate students to be active? Does it help students develop the knowledge and skills needed to be engaged in physical activity? Am I providing voice and choice? Are students feeling safe?

If you are getting "no" for any of the questions, consider making changes so that all students in your class can have positive experiences which may then promote lifelong physical activity.


Want to know more?

Check out Nathan Horne's Twitter thread on how he used Meaningful PE to create a culture where students were encouraged to find their personal connections to physical activity through the features of the Meaningful PE approach. I personally really enjoyed the personal relevance/connection piece.

Listen to Dr. Laura Alfrey's interview in this podcast on her 2023 article referenced throughout this blog (and in the visual). The podcast is called "Playing With Research in Physical Education." You can follow the podcast on Twitter here.

You can also hear Jorge Rodriguez and Ben Landers on this podcast as they discuss fitness testing within a U.S. public school context. The podcast, hosted by Jorge Rodriguez, is called Global PhysEd Voxcast.

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Thank you for reading!

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