California may stop school fitness tests over concerns about non-binary students and bullying fears

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Fitness tests in California schools may be suspended for three years over fears of the negative effect the test has on non-binary students forced to identify as male or female.

The state’s current fitness assessment measures a student’s body mass index which requires every student to select whether they are ‘male’ or ‘female’. A number of school districts have complained to the state that this practice is discriminatory against students who identify as non-binary. 

Under current requirements, California students in grades five, seven and nine must take a fitness test that involves a one-mile run, curl-ups, push-ups and a measure of body mass index.

The new proposal, brought forward by California Governor Gavin Newsom, could suspend the current test for three years until a new assessment is developed. Physical education will still remain a requirement for graduation.  

Governor Newsom wants to pause physical education tests for students for three years due to concerns over bullying and the test discriminating against disabled and non-binary students.

The move also comes after annual test results show a growing percentage of students scoring not healthy.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, said the state has received complaints that the current examination´s measurement of body mass index is discriminatory to non-binary students. 

A measurement calculated from weight and height, BMI screenings require students to select ‘male’ or ‘female,’ he said.

‘Dispelling myths, breaking down stereotypes, and improving school climate is one way California is working to keep all students safe and healthy, consistent with the Governor’s commitment to a California that respects all students,’ Palmer said in an email. 

‘The issue of BMI screening plays a role in the issues of both body shaming and bullying.’

The proposal was tucked inside Newsom´s education budget bill for next year.

School districts nationwide use such tests and the exercise can inform growing children about potential health problems, experts say. 

But the results from tests and BMI measurements should not be used to diagnose health risks, according to the Society of Health and Physical Educators.

During the proposed physical fitness test program´s suspension, the state would study whether the current test should be modified or redrawn anew, Palmer said. 

This would involve consulting with experts on fitness, physical education, gender identity and students with disabilities to decide whether the current test needs to be modified or if a new assessment should be established.  

Physical education classes would remain a requirement for graduation. 

Initiated in 1998, the school tests can include a one-mile run, push-ups and other measurements.

Annual state reports of the fitness test since the 2014-2015 school year show a steady decline in the share of students scoring healthy, according to a review by The Associated Press. 

Students’ scores have particularly dropped in the category of the fitness test that measures ‘aerobic capacity’ which can be tested in a one-mile run or by other methods. Other categories also test for flexibility and exercises like push-ups.

In the last five years, the percentage of fifth graders scoring healthy in the aerobic category has dropped by 3.3 percentage points. In seventh and ninth grades, the drops are 4.4 percentage points and 3.8 percentage points, respectively. 

Meanwhile, the percentage of students identified as ‘needing improvement’ and having a ‘health risk’ went up: by 3.3 percentage points among fifth graders, 4.4 for seventh graders and 3.8 among ninth graders.

The Department of Education did not immediately comment on those results.

Bodybuilder and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had several school fitness initiatives during his time in office. He said through a spokesman that physical education classes should be the top priority.

‘Whether the state uses fitness tests or not, Governor Schwarzenegger believes that the most important thing is that our students have access to daily physical education classes to promote a healthy and fit lifestyle,’ said Daniel Ketchell, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger.

Ketchell agreed that BMI screenings are flawed. 

He said, for instance, that the 6-foot-2-inch and 240-pound Schwarzenegger would have been officially classified obese when he won the top bodybuilding title of Mr. Olympia in 1974.

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