Lawmakers: Fitter students equal higher test scores

Legislature calls for more P.E. classes, citing studies linking academics, fitness

Laura Heinauer

Publication Date: June 13, 2007  Page: A01  Section: News  Edition: Final  

Jocks tend to be better students than couch potatoes.

That's the premise behind legislation awaiting the governor's signature that would make physical education classes mandatory for Texas middle school students and would require school districts to track and report student fitness levels.

The legislation is a departure, supporters say, from the status quo under which schools struggling with increased demands for better performance in the classroom have pushed physical education to the bottom of the priority list.

Now, for the first time, just as academic performance for Texas schools is available for review online, fitness levels for Texas campuses would also be available.

The legislation has come about in part due to a growing body of research that shows fitness improves student academic performance.

Critics say the bill benefits its author's campaign contributors and could hamper students' abilities to take art and music classes.

Specifically, the measure mandates 30 minutes of daily physical activity in at least four semesters during middle school, grades six through eight. It also requires that schools begin giving aerobic, abdominal, flexibility and upper body tests to students in grades three through 12.

"By implementing these requirements and having a tool to measure how increased fitness levels affect learning, Texas is at the forefront of addressing the issue of childhood obesity," said Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, one of the bill's authors.

Nelson, a former teacher, said she was troubled by studies that show more than 42 percent of Texas fifth-graders are overweight or at risk of being overweight.

"Anyone who has taught public school knows the old adage of 'sound body, sound mind' really is true," Nelson said. "This generation of young people will live shorter lives than their parents unless we change the status quo. We've got to do this."

If the measure is signed by the governor, the physical assessments will start this fall. Currently, state law requires districts to offer physical education but allows them to decide whether to make classes mandatory in all grades. Kindergarten and elementary school students must have at least 135 minutes of "structured physical activity" per week, which can include recess. High school students must have at least 1.5 credits of physical education. The new activity requirements for middle school students won't take effect until the 2008-09 school year.

Texas Education Agency officials say they plan to use a program called Fitnessgram, which has been used by the Austin school district on a limited basis for several years, for the physical assessments.

The software helps physical education teachers tailor activities based on individual fitness needs; for example, it might recommend aerobic exercises for classes whose students are overweight.

Aggregate data will be collected and reported to the TEA to determine whether the increased activity affects students' performance in the classroom, and that information will be available to the public, agency officials said.

Kenneth Cooper, a Dallas exercise researcher who developed the Fitnessgram software, has donated a combined $12,000 to the campaigns of Nelson and Rick Perry and lobbied to get Nelson's bill passed. Cooper said he thinks Texans will be surprised by the poor fitness levels of students once the state starts tracking them. Cooper and Nelson said they were disappointed about what was stripped out of the bill — mandatory daily physical activity for all grades — but said the results from the assessments will probably show a need for it in the future.

"Though we had to make some concession on the bill, I can assure you that once people know how big the problem is, you will have a lot more money and attention paid to the value of fitness for our children," Cooper said.

Nelson said she's not giving up on her goal of having daily activity mandated by law.

"The reduction in the middle school requirement was the biggest concession," she said. "We'll try again next session."

Paying for the program is also an issue. The Legislature didn't provide any money for the physical assessments.

Cooper has offered to forgo any profit on the $260 software for districts. He is also working on getting private grants to help pay the remaining $230 per school.

Though Cooper's Fitnessgram hasn't been officially selected as the program that will be required statewide, Jeff Kloster, the TEA's new associate commissioner for health and safety, said it will probably be chosen because it is the most widely used in Texas and one of the most highly recognized fitness assessment tools nationwide.

"One of the criticisms during the session was that Cooper was doing this to make money for himself," Kloster said. "I personally asked him about it, . . . (and) he assured me that wasn't the case."

Other criticisms came from lobbyists who raised questions about whether the new requirements would erode students' ability to take art and music classes.

"We were supportive of the flexibility that was added to the version that finally passed," said Robert Floyd, executive director of the Texas Music Educators Association, which worked to lessen the middle school requirement. "In the end, we would have liked to see it remain a local district decision."

With mandatory physical education class times and physical assessments, Cooper and Kloster said they think the data collected will support other research from around the country that shows a positive relationship between muscle and brain power.

Mississippi, New York and Illinois are some of the other states that have established minimum time or frequency standards for physical education.

Nelson said a new University of Illinois study showed that third- and fifth-graders who were more physically fit did better on standardized tests. The study, which helped push her bill through the Texas Senate, will be published later this year.

"When we first started this six years ago, it was really hard to find data that linked obesity with academic achievement. But now it's popping up everywhere," she said.

lheinauer@statesman.com; 445-3694