Are Fitness Appraisals a Part of a Quality Physical Education Program?


Should we use physical fitness appraisals in quality physical education classes? For the purpose of this blog, we are going to use the Spark Blog definition of quality physical education. That definition states quality physical education program, “…is a positive learning environment where students learn fitness and motor skills via a sequential and progressive path towards becoming physically educated people”. Assuming that we agree on what a quality physical education program is let’s look at what a fitness appraisal or assessment is. A fitness assessment measures physical strength, flexibility, agility and muscular endurance. There are many different types of fitness appraisals.The most common fitness appraisal that educators on Voxer and Twitter use is the Fitnessgram fitness test.

Fitnessgram is a fitness assessment and reporting program for youth, first developed in 1982 by The Cooper Institute in response to the need for a comprehensive set of assessment procedures in physical education programs.  The assessment includes a variety of health-related physical fitness tests that assess aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility; and body composition. Scores from these assessments are compared to Healthy Fitness Zone® standards to determine students’ overall physical fitness and suggest areas for improvement when appropriate.” (Link)

Fitnessgram uses 6 main tests. (Link)

  • Either the Mile Run, PACER (20-meter shuttle runs) or the Walk Test  (measures aerobic capacity)
  • Push-ups  (measures upper body muscular strength/endurance)
  • Curl-ups  (measures abdominal muscular strength/endurance)
  • Either the Back Saver Sit and Reach or Shoulder Stretch  (measures flexibility)
  • Trunk Lift  (measures trunk extensor strength and flexibility)
  • Body Mass Index  (measures body composition: appropriateness of weight relative to height)

We have to question everything we are doing in the physical education community all the time. Why do we use fitness appraisals in physical education class? Let’s look at this from the beginning. “The first commonly used national test was developed in 1958 by AAHPER (now SHAPE America).  The Presidents Council became involved in 1966 when they started giving an award for kids who scored in the 85%ile on all test in the Youth Fitness Test (AAHPER Test).  In the mid-1980’s the Presidents Council took over the Youth Fitness Test and competed with Fitnessgram which was developed as a health-related fitness test.  The Youth Fitness Test was considered more a test of performance ability than a health test.” (Corbin Interview) The idea of testing students has changed over the years and will hopefully continue to change and adapt with research.

What are my students gaining by having their fitness assessed? “One of the purposes of fitness testing is to provide feedback to students and parents and encourage students to adopt PA (physical activity) patterns that will lead to improved health and fitness.” (Ernst, Corbin, Beighle & Pangrazi, 2006) This is good. We want to include parents and guardians. Anything that allows stakeholders outside of the class to be involved is a win for the students, the school, and the physical education program. The question then arises do the students adopt physical activity patterns that lead to improved health and fitness?

“Wiersma and Sherman (2008) state that when physical fitness testing is conducted in a motivating manner, it increases internal validity, self-efficacy, enjoyment, and overall interest in physical activity (PA) and that self-assessment is a viable means to increase competence in fitness performance.” (Hill, Downing 2015) The problem with this statement is their idea of what a motivating manner is. One student may appreciate being told their scores while another may be embarrassed or engage in negative self-talk based on their scores. “Harris and Cale (2007) and Rice (2007) warned that fitness testing may contribute to a diminished interest in PE (physical education) and PA (physical activity) in general because the results undermine the confidence, self-esteem, and sense of self as a PA participant for those who either have low scores or do not experience improvement.” (Hill, Downing 2015).

The other variable in this situation is the teacher. Many physical education teachers were athletes in their youth. Motivation in activities that you voluntarily sign up for, and probably excel at, looks much different than motivation for something that an institution tells you is important. If we assume that the teachers have been trained properly and understand that they are not fitness trainers there still is the problem that motivation looks different to every student. This is another reason that the most important aspect of teaching is not content but the relationships the teacher has with their students.

Our national organization has an entire position paper that you can read here. SHAPE Link It starts off by stating, “The main goal for fitness measurement is making students and their parents aware of the benefits of fitness. Students can use the personalized reports as a means to determine their own fitness levels and to take steps toward maintaining or improving their personal fitness levels. By providing personalized reports for the parents, including information about a student’s level of health-related fitness, teachers can enhance parental involvement in promoting physical activity.” I disagree that measuring for fitness makes the students aware of the benefits of fitness. The teacher needs to explicitly teach that content to the students. This could be done without doing any fitness assessments at all. One extreme example of this would be a class of students in wheel chairs. They would not be able to do the fitness assessments but could still learn the benefits of fitness. Knowing and understanding the benefits of fitness are purely cognitive. 

The second part of the statement is the key. The personalized reports can help parents and guardians understand the fitness level of their students. The data alone tells us nothing. Fitnessgram compares the student’s score to the Healthy Fitness Zone. This gives the students and their guardians the ability to see where they need to improve.

The main reason that physical education teachers use fitness appraisals in their class is they are forced to. Some states and school districts mandate that fitness appraisals be a part of the curriculum. California mandates that Fitnessgram is used. SHAPE America dedicates standards specifically to fitness appraisals. One example of this at the elementary school level is:  Completes fitness assessments (pre- & post-). (S3.E5.4a). The standard at the middle school level is: Designs and implements a program of remediation for any areas of weakness based on the results of health-related fitness assessment. (S3.M15.6) Another standard that is commonly used in high school is Develops and maintains a fitness portfolio (e.g., assessment scores, goals for improvement, plan of activities for improvement, log of activities being done to reach goals, timeline for improvement). (S3.H11.L2)

The SHAPE America position statement tells us that, “Purposeful measurement is an appropriate component of quality physical education. Combining fitness measurement and instruction is an appropriate instruction strategy and should be the main reason for measuring fitness. Measurement without a plan for using the data does little to serve students’ needs and is not an educationally sound practice. Students can use fitness data to explore types of activities that will lead to improving their personal fitness. Examining fitness data and the procedure for developing fitness plans can motivate students to make changes in their personal fitness levels. The sequence of fitness plan development should include:

  • Fitness data analysis.
  • Goal-setting based on test results.
  • Linking physical activities to personal goals.
  • Developing logs and journals and other physical activity measures.

Schools also can use fitness measurement to examine their instructional programs. By analyzing school data, schools can determine areas of concentration and begin the discussion of how to make instruction-related changes in the physical education program to address areas of student need. Analyzing the data might show the need for more professional development, for example, to improve various aspects of health-related fitness, and it might reinforce the need for curriculum development within a school or school system.” SHAPE Link

In the Fitness for Life books they use these steps for personal physical activity program planning:

Step 1: Determine personal needs (this includes both fitness and physical assessment—how much physical activity do you currently do?)

Step 2: Consider your program options.

Step 3. Set SMART Goals

Step 4: Structured your program and write it down.

Step 5: Keep a Log, Evaluate your program, Revise your program

Although SHAPE America believes that using fitness data is appropriate to make changes to physical education and health programs I would urge caution. Other factors must be taken into consideration before taking any measures. One factor would be the age of the students. A recent poll on Twitter asked when was it appropriate to start fitness testing. Almost 75% of the respondents answered K-5th grade. The problem with starting testing so early is that until students go through puberty they don’t have a ton of hormones released yet.  Dr. Pangrazi states in his speech at the Grand Resort Hotel and Spa that, “I also know that elementary school kids don’t respond to training  because there aren’t any hormones floating around their bodies. You can train them, and train them, and train them and they don’t improve.” (Link) He goes on to state that increased fitness scores nine months after the first one are due mainly to the students natural body growth.

Another factor is the lack of time students have in physical education.  According to children need to exercise con­tinuously for twenty to thirty minutes at a heart rate above his resting heart level three times a week. (LinkBoth of these factors could negate any reason to change a program. If programs are testing students too early or do not have enough time during the week to cause any real physical changes to the body, then no amount of professional development or instruction related changes will help change student’s fitness levels.

The biggest problem with fitness assessments lies in what teachers and school districts are doing with this data. Here is what the data should be used for according to the SHAPE America Fitness Assessment position statement: 

Inappropriate Uses

Inappropriate uses of fitness measurement include grading students and evaluating teacher effectiveness. Grading Students Because students differ in terms of interests and ability, teachers should not use student scores to evaluate individual students within K-12 physical education. Grading students on fitness might constitute holding them accountable for results that are beyond their control. Likewise, posting fitness results can create a situation that fosters negative attitudes toward physical activity. Recognizing and posting students’ fitness scores for fitness can create a feeling of frustration among students who struggle with their personal fitness levels. Instead, recognizing student success in improving fitness levels can provide a more positive way to acknowledge student achievement. Rather than posting names of students who have attained a high level of fitness, recognizing students who have improved fitness scores over time from year to year might be a better strategy.” (Link)

Inappropriate Uses for FITNESSGRAM/ACTIVITYGRAM (written by the Cooper Institute)

  • Evaluating individual students in physical education (e.g.grading or state standards testing)

  • Using as a sole criterion to justify students who can “test out” of physical education

  • Evaluating teacher effectiveness (e.g. teacher evaluations)

  • Evaluating overall physical education quality (e.g. physical education program assessment)

Another problem lies in the ability of the students and teachers to get true numbers. “Fitness tests are plagued by methodological limitations and the validity and reliability of some tests, test batteries and in applying norm and/or criterion-referenced standards with children has been questioned. These limitations stem from the many factors that influence performance and are reflected in fitness test scores (e.g., the environment/test conditions, test protocol, motivation, skill, heredity/genetic potential, maturation).” (LinkSome teachers are trained to administer the appraisals while others are not. How can we be sure that the test is reliable or valid? “This is mostly a problem for institutional testing.  If we focus on self-testing we can show kids that scores are only useful if you take the tests the right way.  Work about the true numbers mostly is associated with often inappropriate uses” (Corbin Interview)

We give the test one time in the beginning of the year, one time in the middle and one time at the end. There are so many factors that can sway the results that day. Children who are in soccer season at the beginning of the year will score much better on the cardiovascular test than they will at the end of the year. Their mental health, physical health, motivation, and diet could all play a huge part in the results as well. A true score would need to be taken numerous times throughout the year with all the variables taken out of the equation.

What conclusions can we make about fitness appraisals? A quality physical education program should be incorporating fitness testing into their curriculum. Using fitness appraisals before students go through puberty makes them unreliable as well as invalid. When physically appropriate, they can be an effective way to allow students to create a baseline of their fitness and start making fitness goals. “If students learn to use fitness tests for self-assessment, there may be benefits that go beyond the mere understanding of health-related fitness and physical activity.”(Corbin Interview) This can not be overstated. If we allow students to self-assess their fitness levels, which Dr. Pangrazi advocates, we are teaching them a life skill, not just a physical education skill.

We can also say that grading students on their fitness scores or improvement of fitness scores is not best practice. Using the scores to allow students to opt out of physical education is not best practice. Most importantly using the fitness scores as any sort of evaluative data for teachers is flat out wrong. This means using the scores for Student Learning Objectives, Grade Level Objectives, a Professional Development Plan or any other acronym that would hold a physical education teacher accountable for their students’ test scores is flat out bad practice.  

I will leave you with words of Dr. Charles Corbin. Dr. Corbin has written more than 90 books and 200 research articles in the field of fitness and wellness. He is the foremost expert in fitness appraisals with over 40 years of research experience. “Fitness testing is a tool that can be used for good or for bad, depending on how it is done. Our challenge is to make sure that it is used in the best possible way. So I urge, as Cale, Harris and Chen do, that we do everything in our power to make sure that fitness testing is used to meet the needs of youth and to promote lifelong physical activity. It is my view that informed teachers have become less likely to use tests inappropriately especially those who use the HELP philosophy and guidelines for appropriate and inappropriate practice developed by FITNESSGRAM®.”(Link(This HELP philosophy was developed for the Fitness For Life books and was lent to Fitnessgram and Physical Best. HELP stand for Health for Everyone for a Lifetime in a Personal way.) Pangrazi speech

Ernst M, Pangrazi RP, Corbin CB. Physical education: Making a transition toward activity. JOPERD. 1998; 69(9):29-32.

Hill, G., & Downing, A. (2015). Effect of Frequent Peer-Monitored Testing and Personal Goal Setting on Fitnessgram Scores of Hispanic Middle School Students. The Physical Educator, 72(2). Retrieved from


5 thoughts on “Are Fitness Appraisals a Part of a Quality Physical Education Program?

  1. Pingback: How do you do Fitness Testing in PE

  2. Terry Weston

    I have just written a short piece on ‘fitness testing in primary schools’. I generally agree with everything you’ve written (I didn’t use quotes, I just wrote about what I’ve been observing over the past 10 years or so). I particularly like your line:

    “Using fitness appraisals before students go through puberty makes them unreliable as well as invalid”

    As you may have probably guessed I don’t agree on using commercialised fitness testing on primary school children.

    If you’re interested here is the link to my small article.


    Terry Weston


  3. Pingback: The PE Playbook – November 2015 Edition | drowningintheshallow

  4. jcahill21

    Interesting stuff. We use our own fitness file for personal goal setting. Once our students complete the first round of 4, they establish a baseline then set a reasonable goal. We, of course discuss what reasonable goals look like and help them discover ways to work on their goals both in class and at home.



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