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By W. Gardner Selby April 16, 2013

Mike Villarreal says 2011 Legislature imposed physical fitness tests on Texas school kids

The 2011 Legislature might best be remembered for cuts in spending, including changes to education aid.

Lawmakers also directed schools to check the physical fitness of students, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, told House colleagues during April 4, 2013, consideration of proposed amendments to the pending 2014-15 state budget.

"During the last legislative session in 2011, there was a program that was created that requires all of our public schools to collect health information on students, to test them on their respiratory system, on their weight," he said. "It’s called FitnessGram. Every school district, every school, implements this program, collects the data, sends it to" the Texas Education Agency.

We looked into the accuracy of his flashback after inquiring into why he mentioned the mandate.

The day he spoke, Villarreal won House approval of an amendment to that body’s version of the next budget. Villarreal described his amendment as enabling state researchers to access and analyze results of the fitness tests collected by the agency. Asked if researchers are restricted from getting such results now, Villarreal’s chief of staff, Peter Clark, said by email the agency "has been slow to provide this data to researchers, so we wanted to communicate legislative direction."

So, did the 2011 Legislature set the fitness tests in motion?

Nope. It turns out state law has required students in grades three through 12 to take fitness tests since the 2007-08 school year, though the 2011 Legislature tweaked the law to limit the aerobic, abdominal, flexibility and upper body tests to students enrolled in physical education classes, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson told us by phone.

The 2007 Legislature established the mandate that students be tested for fitness, which came along with a fresh requirement that middle school students take physical education classes.

At the time, advocates included state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who told the Austin American-Statesman in June 2007 that she was troubled by studies showing some fifth-graders were 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." The Statesman reported that the FitnessGram software had been developed by Kenneth Cooper, the well-known Dallas exercise researcher.

Under the law, each district must annually assess the physical fitness of students in PE classes, with a state-ordered "assessment instrument" considering factors including aerobic capacity, body composition and muscular strength, endurance and flexibility, the law says. Also, the law requires the exam to include standards specific to each student’s age and gender and to be based on the "physical fitness level required for good health."

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A FitnessGram manual suggests that students run or walk and have their percentage of body fat gauged, either through a skin-fold test using calipers or by measuring height and weight. Other suggested tests include curl-ups (or sit-ups) and push-ups. (Parents of students in the Austin school district may request their child’s FitnessGram report from the school’s PE teacher, the district’s PE supervisor, Michele Rusnak, said by phone. She added that in instances where "anything really glaring" emerges in a test, the teacher talks to the school nurse, who reaches out to the student’s parents.)

By email, Culbertson said aggregated school-by-school or district-by-district results, which do not identify individual students, are available online.

How’s it been going for the kids? Unevenly, it appears.

Statewide through 2009-10, the vast majority of Texas students had failed to pass all six Fitnessgram tests, according to an April 18, 2011, Statesman news article. More recently, nearly 46 percent of more than two million Texas children who participated in the 2012 tests were found to be at risk for obesity, according to the Reshaping Texas web site, which was created at legislative direction by State Comptroller Susan Combs. Some 54 percent of the tested students achieved a "healthy fitness zone" rating, according to the site, which features an interactive map for checking particular districts. In the Austin district, according to the map, 32 percent of students who were tested came out at high risk of obesity, 12 percent were at some risk and 55 percent landed in the "healthy fitness zone."

Finally, we hop-skipped to asking why Villarreal, a House member since 2000, traced the origin of the fitness tests to 2011. By email, Clark said the representative was reflecting on a 2011 proposal tightening what school districts report to the state about how students fare on the tests. Previously, the law said districts should report summary data from the tests, broken out by grade level and other sifts as ordered by the state education commissioner. Members in 2011 changed the law to require districts to report each student’s performance, though the law continued to bar any student from being identified in the reports by name or otherwise.

Clark later said Villarreal mistakenly said the tests were mandated by the 2011 Legislature.

Our ruling

Villarreal said the 2011 Legislature ordered Texas students to take fitness tests including checks of weight and respiratory systems.

The mandated tests can involve checking each student’s weight and the aerobic tests relate to respiration. But lawmakers launched the program a few years earlier, in 2007, though they approved changes in 2011.

We rate this claim as Mostly True.

Our Sources

State law related to Fitnessgram, Chapter 38, Health and Safety Code, Texas Education Code; Senate Bill 226, approved by 2011 Legislature in regular session; Senate Bill 8, approved by 2011 Legislature in special session (accessed April 8 and 10, 2013)

News article, "Lawmakers: Fitter students equal higher test scores  Legislature calls for more P.E. classes, citing studies linking academics, fitness," Austin American-Statesman, June 13, 2007

Email, Peter Clark, chief of staff, Office of Rep. Mike Villarreal, April 10, 2013

Telephone interview, Michele Rusnak, health and physical education superviser, Austin Independent School District, April 11, 2013

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Mike Villarreal says 2011 Legislature imposed physical fitness tests on Texas school kids

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