Fitness Testing in High School

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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To get an understanding of the problems we are facing in the schools today, we need to investigate the background of how and why we even created fitness testing in the first place. With respect to fitness in the United States we look to the Industrial Revolution. This period resulted in changes throughout the country. Labor-intensive jobs were replaced by industrial and mechanical technologies and advancement in replication processes also known as assembly line work. Rural life shifted to an urban lifestyle.

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This city life required less movement and easier work compared to country life, leading to decreased physical activity. (1)

The first fitness movement began in the early 1800 with the introduction of the gymnasium and men doing Swedish gymnastics. In the early 1860s, “”The New Gymnastics,”” was introduced by Dioclesian Lewis. He created and advocated for a systematic approach toward fitness based on strength training and endurance for both genders. (2). Edward Hitchcock, and Dudley Sargent were other individuals who developed principles of fitness during this time. Hitchcock introduced measurements to assess fitness progress and recognized the outcome of fitness programs was improved health. Sargent led the way with scientific research for fitness instruction and developed teaching methodologies that organized instruction; (1) However, sports such as baseball, football, and basketball started to gain popularity in the United States during this era. Consequently, the argument that developed during the post-Civil War period and continues to this day is between health-related fitness and skill-related fitness physical education programs. (1).

The First World War started in August of 1914, and the United States joined three years later in 1917. After the war, statistics from the draft were released with data regarding fitness levels. It was found that 33% of drafted individuals were unfit for combat and many of the ones who did get drafted were unfit prior to military training (3). Government passed legislation that ordered improvement of physical education programs within the public schools., However, the heightened interest and concern for low fitness levels did not last because the United States entered the Depression.

The modern fitness movement came out of World War II, Korea, and the development of the Cold War. The United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941. With the declaration of war came another draft of military personnel; However, as men were drafted, it became clear that many of them again, were not fit for combat. After the war ended, it was reported that almost half of the draftees needed to be rejected or could only serve in non-combat positions (3). These statistics echoed what happened after World War I and gained the attention of the country about the importance of fitness.

During the 1940s, Dr. Thomas K. Cureton introduced applying fitness research for exercise recommendations to individuals. Cureton wanted to find out how much exercise was healthy and the types of exercise that were most effective. He worked on developing tests to measure the fitness in an individual. He is known for developing cardiorespiratory endurance fitness tests, muscular strength fitness tests, and flexibility fitness tests. His research resulted in recommendations for the improvement of cardiorespiratory fitness, and the identification of exercise intensity guidelines necessary for improved levels of fitness. (4)

During the mid-1950s, an important factor influencing the fitness testing movement came about because of a study using the “”Minimum Muscular Fitness Tests in Children”” by Kraus-Hirschland. This study which utilized the Kraus-Weber tests measured a subject’s muscular strength and flexibility in the trunk and leg muscles. The report showed that close to 60% of American children failed at least one of the tests compared to only 9% percent of children from European children failing one of the tests. (5) When results were reported to President Eisenhower by Senators James Kelly and James Duff, he held a White House Conference in June of 1956. The results of these meetings were: 1) formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness and 2) the appointment of the President’s Citizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth (6). This was a first step in to gaining the nation’s attention concerning its fitness levels. President John F. Kennedy took the development of the Youth Fitness, a step further with the appointment of Bud Wilkinson as head of that council. He also changed it to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Kennedy spoke openly and often about the American citizens needing to improve their fitness levels, He even wrote an article in Sports Illustrated entitled “”The Soft American.”” (7) He said, “”We are under-exercised as a nation; we look instead of play; we ride instead of walk”” Kennedy’s commitment to fitness can best be summarized when he said, “”Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.”” (8) The finding of these and other reports, along with outside threats during the cold war resulted in more stringent levels of fitness standards being applied within U.S. schools. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy promoted physical education programs and used the Presidential Fitness Test Award to monitor and assess physical fitness levels of the nation’s children. This guaranteed that U.S. students were as physically fit as European students. This test was designed to prepare America for military service.


Now that we know as an educational institution how we got the fitness testing protocols, we need to look at the literature to see how we are implementing the mandate, and if there is really a need for the mandate. New data published in June of this year using the numbers from last school year shows 14.8% of high school students were obese, and another 15.6% were overweight, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). (9)

The National Center for the chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has stated that Children and adolescents should do at least 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of daily physical activity. Most of this time should be either moderate- or vigorous aerobic physical activity and should include muscle and bone-strengthening activity on at least 3 days of the week. (10)

To be fair and unbiased as possible, it is important to include research that has been done that says testing is not needed. One such study came out in 2004. It was conducted to find out if it was cost effective or practical to test Welsh children. The study was sponsored by Loughborough University, School of Sport and Exercise. Their conclusions were that it was not warranted or cost effective. They also mentioned the methodological limitations of testing children, negative impact on some children of fitness testing, problems in interpreting data in a meaningful way and that there are weak associations between children’s health and physical fitness. (11)

SHAPE America stated, “”testing is a valuable part of fitness education when integrated appropriately into a comprehensive physical education curriculum.”” (12) Their rationale is that Fitness education is designed to teach students why and how to participate in physical activity as well as other health-enhancing behaviors on a regular basis. Fitness education has a role in empowering students to be physically active and to make healthy choices that contribute to a lifetime of physical activity. This is in keeping with SHAPE America’s 50 Million Strong by 2029 commitment “”to empower all students to live healthy and active lives through effective physical and health education programs.””(12) Fitness testing, as a resource tool and self-modification measure, is addressed in all five of SHAPE America’s 2013 National Standards for K-12 Physical Education as well as their Grade-Level Outcomes for K-12 Physical Education and are featured in their Standards. A person who is physically literate and demonstrates health enhancing knowledge and skills is more likely to achieve and maintain physical activity and fitness. (12)


What is fitness testing for? The uses and benefits of fitness testing include the evaluation of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, relative to the demands of their activity. Aid the development of suitable training goals. Monitor the effects of training. Provide fitness goals feedback. To provide useful information, the tests must fulfill certain criteria; therefore, fitness tests should be: component specific/applicable Valid Reliable Accurate sensitive enough to detect levels of change in fitness. To be valid, a test must have validity. This means that the test assesses what it is intended to. For example, whilst completing as many bench presses as possible may be a measure of muscular endurance, it is not a valid measure of maximum strength. Test reliability refers to how repeatable or consistent a test is. A performer repeating a test under the same conditions with no change in their fitness should produce identical results. However, attaining the same results are most unlikely due to some slight differences by the performer from day to day. Test accuracy combines the test validity and reliability the accuracy to which measurements can be recorded. A test must also be sufficiently sensitive to detect minor changes in fitness or else hard-earned gains could go undetected, which could de-motivate the performer or undermine the credibility of the coach. (13)

Dr. Ken H. Cooper is generally credited with encouraging more individuals to exercise than any other individual in history. Cooper’s philosophy shifted away from disease treatment to one that advocated disease prevention. “”It is easier to maintain good health through proper exercise, diet, and emotional balance than it is to regain it once it is lost”” he said. Cooper stressed the necessity for keeping and providing data to support the benefits of regular exercise and health. Aerobics, released in 1968, was derived from the data of thousands of people sending a message to the American people to prevent the development of chronic diseases, exercise regularly and maintain fitness levels throughout life. (14)

The CDC noted that regular physical activity helps children and adolescents improve cardiorespiratory fitness, control weight, relieve anxiety and depression, build strong bones and muscles, as well as reduce their risk of developing secondary health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. (15)

Starting around 1978, because of the anti-government sentiment over Vietnam involvement and recession, many states started once again cutting back on Physical Education funding. By 1990, many programs were dropped altogether from educational institutions while in some school other subjects and electives took the place of these classes. Lately the focus has been renewed, now that there is rising rates of obesity among our youth. We are renewing our dedication and starting to shift focus back on physical literacy within the schools.


The history of fitness has some interesting themes that relate closely to the 21st century. One is the strong association with the military. The second, is that as societies become more interested in the acquisition of wealth, prosperity, and self-entertainment that their commitment to physical fitness will decline and other subjects or electives begin to take priority. Levels of fitness drop. There is a general saying in the Marine Corps that “”hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times.”” In addition, as advances in technology have increased with man, the physical fitness levels have decreased. History does not give us the answer to prevent or turnaround these problems. It does however give us some good ideas and indicators.

So, this is what the challenge is today. Utilizing all the research on health, fitness and performance from the minds in the fitness industry. We need to renew our dedication and demand a shift in focus back on physical literacy within the schools.

Further research

We are still our own worst enemy! Physical Education teachers/coaches have by our hands caused the public to lose confidence in our ability to properly look after and instruct their children in the proper way to achieve and maintain a lifelong health literacy. Too often, we have coaches in the classroom who are only worried about and working toward his or her athletic sport and therefore neglects or in some cases looks down upon those in a “”regular”” PE setting. There are those who have allowed themselves to be treated as recess monitors or glorified referees for so long, they have lost a lot of our colleague’s professional respect. When the Cooper institute itself will not stand up and back its own message as to the value and validity of a comprehensive fitness program then is it any wonder why we have parents, administrators, school districts and government officials not agreeing to make PE a core curriculum course and mandatory K through 12 even though obesity and other health issues from it are increasing? I say no. I was in San Antonio, at the Texas High School Coaches Association Coaching school, two weeks ago sitting in mandatory lectures about concussions, and safety protocols and all around me I witnessed “”teachers”” on their phones scrolling through Facebook, texting, playing games, and one even watching a movie.

SHAPE America published their Position Fitness, stating “”testing is a valuable part of fitness education when integrated appropriately into a comprehensive physical education curriculum,”” (12); however, they then backtracked by stating “”students’ fitness scores should not be used to grade students or to evaluate physical education teachers””. (12) The question to ask is why?

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Fitness Testing in High School. (2019, Jul 22). Retrieved from