Fresno Unified students continue to lag behind state averages on California's annual physical fitness test, but district officials say middle schoolers are getting healthier because of a dance craze that's caught fire in gym classes.
The report released this week shows Fresno kids improved slightly in some fitness categories over the past three years but dropped in others. Other big Valley districts like Central and Visalia scored closer to the state average, while Clovis Unified students were at least 14 percentage points higher than the state in each grade tested.
The test measures fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders' athleticism in six areas: aerobic capacity, body mass index, abdominal strength, trunk (back) strength, upper body strength and flexibility.
Just 14% of Fresno Unified fifth-graders were considered proficient in all categories last year, while about 22% of seventh-and ninth-graders made the grade in all areas. Those numbers represent a slight dip from 2011-12, but are a few percentage points worse than the 2010-11 school year in grades seven and nine.
Allan Kristensen, Fresno Unified's visual and performing arts manager who oversees the district's physical fitness efforts, said he was eager to see the state report but disappointed by some of the findings. "I opened that data up and I wanted to see all these great improvements, and it's never happy when there are negatives in some categories," he said.
Most California students didn't do very well: 26% of fifth-graders, 32% of seventh-graders and 37% of ninth-graders reached all six benchmarks. That's just a few tenths of a percentage point higher than last year's ratings.
"We would love it if every child was in the healthy fitness zone, but we realize we're not quite there yet," said Tina Jung, California Department of Education spokeswoman. "As for an ultimate goal, there's nothing in the education code that says all kids must do 12 push-ups. What we're trying to do is get kids healthier."
Jung said the state collects data but doesn't analyze it for trends. As a general rule, she said, kids with parents who are actively engaged in their education are more fit. But she said it's tough to know exactly what causes the changes from year to year.
Fresno Unified's Kristensen said he can't explain the declines in areas like flexibility and upper body strength.
Fresno Unified fifth- and seventh-graders got worse in both categories last year. Ninth-graders had lower proficiency ratings in both abdominal and upper body strength.
Long-standing high rates of childhood obesity in Fresno could be to blame. The most recent data from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy shows 42.5% of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders were considered overweight or obese in 2010. Statewide, 38% of kids were overweight that year.
But the news isn't all bad.
Overall, Fresno Unified students in the grades tested improved their height-to-weight ratio, known as their body mass index. Fifth- and seventh-graders also boosted their aerobic fitness.
Seventh-graders made the biggest gains: 28% are considered to need improvement in aerobic fitness, down from 33% the year before.
'Dance Dance Revolution' helps
Kristensen said the district used a $1 million grant last year from The California Endowment to add a music video game called "Dance Dance Revolution" in certain middle school gym classes. During the game, students mimic dance steps shown on a screen and score points based on how accurately they follow the steps.
Eight schools now each have 40 interactive dance mats to use during gym. Kids are organizing their own "DDR" competitions during lunch time, Kristensen said, and are even forming after-school dance clubs. Students also get a body mass index card that helps them track their dance activity.
"It keeps them focused and they don't realize they're actually working out really hard," said Suzanne Mueller, Tehipite Middle School gym teacher.
Unlike Fresno Unified, other Valley districts compared more favorably to the state average for fitness ratings. At Visalia Unified, about 24% of fifth-graders were scored in the healthy fitness zone for all six areas, compared to the state average of 26%, officials said.
But district officials were encouraged that by the seventh grade, 34% were proficient in all six areas -- above the state average of 32%.
Mimi Bonds, Visalia Unified's coordinator for student services, said the number of minutes of required physical education doubles from 100 minutes a week for fifth-graders to 200 minutes for seventh-graders.
"They get more minutes, is that the difference?" she said.
Woodlake Unified Superintendent Drew Sorensen said physical education teachers changed exercise routines to try to improve scores in the six categories.
"More stretching for longer, that's how you improve" the flexibility score, for instance, he said.
But at the high school level, "physical fitness is a struggle for a certain percentage of our student population," he said.
Clovis Unified students scored well above state averages, with more than 50% of kids meeting each athletic benchmark.
District spokeswoman Kelly Avants said physical fitness is "pretty high" on the district's priority list. Students who might not otherwise be involved in sports get alternative fitness choices like badminton leagues and pingpong clubs. She said students can also pick from classes like folklorico or hip hop dance.
"Practically you name it and you can find it at our schools," she said.
Physical fitness proficiency, 2012-13
The percentage of students, by grade, in five large central San Joaquin Valley school districts who met all six fitness categories during annual state testing in the 2012-13 school year:
District 5th 7th 9th
Fresno: 14% 22% 22%
Clovis: 52% 59% 51%
Central: 25% 31% 28%
Madera: 23% 31% 23%
Visalia: 24% 34% 37%
Statewide: 26% 32% 37%
Source: California Department of Education
Staff writer Lewis Griswold contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.