BY ALLISON GRIFFIN
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama's public school students are taking part in a new physical fitness assessment this year, replacing a series of tests that had not been updated since their parents were in school.
Citing a need to refocus on the fitness of the state's children, the new Alabama Physical Fitness Assessment rolled out this fall in public schools. The tests are required for all students in grades 2 through 12 and replace the old President's Challenge Fitness Test, which was adopted in 1984.
The new assessment has been in the works since 2010, when federal stimulus money started flowing to the states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded grant money to the Alabama Department of Public Health, which used the money to partner with the Alabama State Department of Education to try to improve the quality of physical education in the state, said Laurie Eldridge-Auffant, public health education manager for the ADPH.
"Our prevalence rate of obesity is higher than the rest of the nation, for both adults and children," Eldridge-Auffant said. "We have some other indicators that let us know we have many chronic diseases that are above the national average."
Though the individual students' results will be treated as confidential information, both parents and students will receive the assessment results. The PE teachers will report the results annually, which should eventually allow for comparisons to see whether the fitter children perhaps have higher test scores.
"We're excited about the potential data down the road," Eldridge-Auffant said. "We know from the research that the kids who are more physically fit and more physically active have better academic scores."
But those comparisons will be some time away. For now, the teachers are finishing up the pre-testing on the kids. Post-testing will begin in March.
The new assessment measures four areas: Aerobic cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, abdominal strength and endurance and flexibility.
PE teachers received training in how to test the kids, but videos that demonstrate the exercises used in the assessment are on the state Department of Education's website. The exercises include a partial curl-up (like an abdominal crunch); a timed one-mile run/walk test (the child can walk the whole way if necessary); and a 90-degree push-up (as many as the child can do in two minutes.)
The students will be assessed in each area and then classified into one of three fitness zones: The Needs Improvement Zone, the Healthy Fitness Zone and the High Fitness Zone.
The goal, of course, is for as many students as possible to fall into the Healthy Fitness Zone. The results allow the teacher to assess her class; if the majority are not in the healthy zone, she can more specifically target areas that need improvement, Eldridge-Auffant said.
Both Eldridge-Auffant and Nancy Ray, physical education and health specialist at the state Department of Education, say this new assessment is much better than the old one because it is a criterion-referenced assessment. That means the score shows whether the students perform well or poorly as individuals.
The previous test was norm-referenced, which identified only whether a student performed better or worse than the other students — but that didn't determine much.
"When a parent or a teacher saw (those) results, they could see that a child maybe fell into the 60th percentile, but that number didn't mean a whole lot," Eldridge-Auffant said.
The assessment was designed to be inclusive, and allows for modifications to be made by PE teachers to accommodate special needs students or those with medical concerns.
The teachers will report the results electronically through I-Now, the statewide student management computer system.
After the public health department and the education department agreed on the need for a new assessment, a task force was formed, comprising a wide array of professionals: K-12 PE teachers, university personnel, school administrators, experts in childhood obesity and physical fitness, a medical doctor, a superintendent and others.
The task force formed in April 2010, and one of the first directives was to develop a definition for quality PE and what that would look like in Alabama, said Eldridge-Auffant, who was a consultant to the task force.
"The definition was really important, because we knew that systems didn't have extra money to implement any tests that they didn't have supplies for already," she said. The task force determined that once the definition had been decided, the school systems, as they received money down the road, would be able to shape their programs to fit the definition.
By early fall 2010, the assessment was pretty much fully developed, with a working draft of the accompanying instructional guide. Then the assessment was pilot tested in a cross-section of school systems.
"We worked with the school systems to make sure that the test that was developed was working," Eldridge-Auffant said. The task force reconvened the next summer to tweak the assessment, and then drafted a policy for the state Board of Education to consider. The BOE adopted the policy in November 2011.
The response from the PE teachers so far has been positive, though Ray acknowledges there are growing pains. It's human nature to have trouble adapting to change, Ray said, and they anticipated some problems here and there.
"I think they're all excited to be able to have immediate feedback once they get their data in on their students," Ray said.
Eldridge-Auffant said she joined Ray for several presentations on the new assessment, and she heard nothing but good things from the teachers.
"They're excited to have a new test in place, and really, many states have (already) moved to this criterion-referenced test," she said. "It was time for Alabama to move in this direction."