How should students be graded in a physical education class? SHAPE America's Cheryl Richardson weighs in. Where do you stand? Share your comments.

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Phys ed debate: Grade students on what they know or what they can do?

Nick Senske is a physically fit seventh grader at Mandarin Middle School who holds a brown belt in karate despite having asthma.

One day in January he had a trouble while running in PE class. He struggled to take in enough air and felt shaky, so he stopped far short of his goal and received only a 60 percent on a key physical fitness test.

That pulled down his grade, now the formerly straight-A student is likely to get a B, he said.

“I knew it was for my grade, but I didn’t know I was going to be graded so harshly,” Nick said. “I suppose that effort could be a factor, but they’re taking a grade from the performance of one (physical) test? It’s almost a form of discrimination.”

Nick and his mother, Kristy Anne Senske want to know how teachers grade physical education: Do they focus on students’ physical skills or do they rate what students learn about fitness and health?

It’s old question that is getting new traction these days.

Physical education classes nationwide are switching focus toward fitness knowledge and encouraging healthy lifestyles and away from fitness competition and tests of endurance. In short, fewer teachers are forcing children to climb ropes or toss heavy medicine balls, and many no longer pit one student or group of students against another for a grade.

“People see the physical education teachers as the ...guy who tortures them to see how many pushups they can do in a minute,” said Cheryl L. Richardson, senior director of programs for the Society of Health and Physical Educators, or SHAPE.

“PE teachers today have much higher expectations. It’s more of a learning environment. We want kids to learn about their own personal fitness and to make decisions about that. And we want them to learn about their motor skills. A first grader can learn how to generate more force when throwing a ball, for instance.”

Still, teachers don’t agree about how much a student’s athletic ability should influence their grades.

Duval district officials, for instance, are discouraging teachers from basing most of a student’s grades on physical tests, but they’re leaving it up to each teacher’s judgment.

Nick’s teacher, Michael Kraatz, did not comment for this story, but he wrote in emails to Kristyanne Senske, that he based part of Nick’s grade on how many laps Nick ran that day compared to how many he ran earlier in the school year, to measure his effort and progress. He said that the test, called a Pacer test, is mandated by Duval but he agrees with using to for grades, to help motivate students.

“Part of the reason we have been an ‘A’ school for 13 straight years is because we do challenge our students and constantly encourage improvement,” he wrote. “If grades are not used as a motivation, many students would walk the track instead of jog/train or would choose to not participate in the activity of the day.”

He added that Nick did not tell him that he was feeling ill that day.

In Florida, most teachers’ annual evaluations and pay raises are linked to student performance data, including PE tests.

There are long-term ramifications to this debate over brains or brawn in PE classes.

Nationally the rates of childhood obesity and early onset diabetes are soaring, experts say, and school districts are desperately trying to get students moving, to counteract otherwise sedentary school days.

In Duval County, a quarter of all middle school students described themselves as overweight and four in 10 said they were physically active in the prior week, according the local Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2013. the numbers worsened when high school students were polled: 29 percent said they were overweight and only a third said they were physically active that week.

Some warn that our society is allowing children to become “soft,” and grading them on knowledge rather than physical skill is part of that.

“Are we ‘coddling’ children in PE? Maybe. Possibly because PE doesn’t count in the atmosphere of high-stakes testing,” said Vincent Melograno, adjunct professor at Rollins College in Winter Park who writes about grading. “Parents oftentimes don’t see (PE’s) overall value compared to so-called ‘academic’ subjects.”

In the past two years, Duval’s physical educators have phased out the President’s Fitness Challenge curricula, which spurred students to undertake timed, physical challenges and compete with students around the country. Now, Duval PE teachers use the Fitnessgram system to get students to challenge themselves, measuring their own growth in flexibility, cardio vascular health, motor skills and body type. Students train during PE class to improve those numbers and takes tests again late in the course to see their growth.

“I think we’re going to create a dent in childhood obesity,” Albritton said. “You can’t grade a child low because they can’t throw a ball 30 feet, but are they showing effort?”

But Richardson, at SHAPE, warns against using physical tests to grade students on effort.

“You should not be graded on how fast you run a mile,” she said. “The grading scheme should be based on the process, not the product.”

Besides, Richardson said, a twice-a-week or even daily PE class is only one contributor to a child’s fitness. Factors such as heredity, diet, weekend and after-school habits may play a stronger role, she said.

PE teachers should use fitness data to individually counsel students and parents about ways to improve fitness, and to individualize their PE instruction, Richardson said.

“These are tools where we can help kids collect information. We can talk to them about it and they can analyze it independently,” she said.

But that is a challenge, especially in Duval’s larger than typical PE classrooms. Some of Duval’s PE classes are two and three times typical class sizes.

SHAPE recommends gym classes be the same size as academic classes, Richardson said. National studies show that the bigger the PE class, the less active students tend to be.

Albritton said Duval’s PE classes blend a lot of instruction with a lot of movement.

“It’s physical; you have to be moving,” she said. “But we don’t ostracize students who don’t have the ability to perform it well. .. And there is some fun involved.”

At a recent 6th grade PE class at James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School, teacher Nathaniel Smith shouted questions about bones and muscles as students performed floor exercises in a gym. They answered and kept stretching, flexing and running. Later, as students ran on a track course, Smith shouted encouragement, congratulating a few who struggled to keep up.

He said his role is to help kids find what they enjoy doing.

“If you think you’re bad at something, you won’t feel like working on it,” he said. “But if you think you’re good, we’ll work on making you feel like you’re great. ”

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