It’s difficult to refute the impact of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on America’s current educational landscape. Jeanne Allen, CEO and founder of the Center for Education Reform, reminded listeners of the law’s significance at a panel earlier this year, pointing out that before NCLB was passed, “there had never been a requirement to publish and disaggregate data down to the school level.”
Of course, it’s this data collection, and the associated standardized testing, that were among the most controversial issues associated with the law. The backlash at local, state and federal level paved the way for former President Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act (also known as ESSA) in 2015, a new national agenda on education which many experts agree returns power to the states and reduces the influence of standardized tests.
ESSA offers states flexibility by allowing them to customize measures of school quality and choose at least one non-test based indicator (also known as the 5th indicator) to measure student success. One of the gauges states are using is Physical Education (PE). In this year’s ESSA draft plans, Connecticut and Vermont both added PE as an indicator, paving the way for more funding and opening doors for external vendors.
Physical Education and the ‘Whole Child’
Fitness evaluation at the state-level is entirely new for Vermont. According to Chris Case, the education project manager for the Vermont Agency of Education, the state wants 100% of their students to be in the Health Fitness Zone (as identified in the Presidential Youth Fitness Program) or approaching that level in the future. He hopes using PE as an indicator for student success will help schools reach that goal.
"There were lots of content areas schools wanted to discuss that were not naturally coming up in the NCLB era,” Case explains. “And [the state’s education department] wanted to articulate a value for other content areas besides math and English.” Case believes that measuring PE is a major component of education and hopes the school system can begin to include health and wellness to evaluate the “whole child.”
Prior to the decision to use physical fitness as the 5th indicator, Vermont’s education department made an effort to hear out the public, planning conversations with principals, superintendents, parents, teachers, curriculum leaders and community advocates. “We were trying to find as many stakeholder groups as we could. Over about four or five months we held almost ten different public information sessions,” explains Case. “The PE measure emerged and stayed because we agreed with the ideas that were being expressed by the public and educators statewide.”
Choosing a PE Vendor
Case’s state is currently in the process of selecting a vendor that will be able to measure the physical fitness of students on a statewide level. The vendor would have to base the measures on Presidential Youth Fitness Program released in 2012, which categorizes students based on their “Healthy Fitness Zones.” Case hopes that the measure can provide a picture of physical health that goes beyond making sure students attend the PE classes. "At this point, we are open to a wide range of ways in assessing health and collecting information. The interesting thing going into this is the ability to have something around physical wellness, as opposed to measures like attendance,” says Case.
According to Case, technology could play a huge role in helping states implement and collect data on this indicator, but a tight budget means the tool they select needs to have demonstrated efficacy already. "We have limited resources at the state to devote to this, so we want to make sure that we are getting a high-quality tool that can be incorporated into a classroom," explains Case.
Right now Case says about 25 percent of the schools in Vermont are using some form of a school-wide fitness assessment. FitnessGram, a non-competitive health-related digital fitness assessment tool created by The Cooper Institute, has been used in some Vermont public schools. “FitnessGram assesses five areas: aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition,” explains Joel Romo, the policy director at The Cooper Institute. “The data that is collected helps us make decisions about interventions or programs that can increase scores.”
The Cooper Institute’s work as a PE vendor is multifaceted, supporting the schools with training, data collection and interventions. “The technology part helps map longitudinal trends. It is easy for technology to track as well as monitor health related information that helps us in schools,” explains Romo. “At The Cooper Institute, we provide a help desk, training, software updates and webinars to help educators implement FitnessGram.”
According to Romo, the increase in states adopting PE as a measure of school quality is positive. “Students have to let go of pent up energy and with that their academic performance increases,” says Romo. He believes that schools were reluctant to adopt PE software and programs because it was not the school leadership’s priority. Now, with PE as a measure of educational quality, that might change.
Romo also views technology in the PE space optimistically, noting the ability of apps to encourage students in online schools to engage in physical activities. “Technology can encourage students to do physical education and activities, not only in school but perhaps when they go home,” he says.
Officials from the Vermont’s Education Agency hope to decide on a vendor by the middle of May, but note that the process could take longer. “We do have physical fitness standards, and the presidential youth fitness program to provide possible examples of measures, but we can't really commit to anything until we know who the vendor is going to be,” explains Case. “But we do know that this PE indicator allows us to think of student health and wellness and student success more broadly.”