Few of my middle school memories are as distinct as the ones involving a pull-up bar. To be more specific: the ones of me avoiding the pull-up bar at all costs. To this day, after 200-plus hours of yoga training and far too many hours test-driving workout trends, I still cannot do a single pull-up. While that failing no longer affects my life in any substantial way, in seventh grade, the shame was palpable.
That's because I was one of the millions of American kids subjected to the public humiliation otherwise known as the Presidential Fitness Test, a battery of physical feats designed to assess the health of school-age children. The test has since been retired and replaced by the less arbitrary and more forgiving physical fitness test (known as FITNESSGRAM), but it left a significant mark on scholastic history.
"The physical fitness tests students have to take are in fifth, seventh and ninth grades in public schools in California, and it's similar in other states as well," says Marisol Visalli, a San Francisco Bay Area-based physical education teacher and massage therapist. "We are testing to collect data on the five categories of fitness — cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition, which is muscle to fat ratio."
History Behind the Hype
It all started in the early 1950s when fitness activists Dr. Hans Kraus and Bonnie Prudden administered exercise tests to thousands of kids throughout the United States, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. U.S. kids came up shockingly short: 58 percent of them failed the tests, compared to just 8 percent of the European kids.
President Dwight Eisenhower wasn't pleased. He took action by forming the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956 to seek out strategies for improving American kids' fitness scores. Concern mounted by the time John F. Kennedy took office. In 1960, he penned a Sports Illustrated op-ed about the perceived problem. An excerpt: "In a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security."
And so, in 1966, the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge commenced — a competition of sorts designed to "encourage and prepare young Americans for the physical demands of military service," according to NPR. The challenge included activities like the softball throw, the shuttle-run, and, of course, the dreaded pull-up. To earn the coveted Physical Fitness Awards, kids would have to place in the top 85th percentile based on national standards.
The problem with all this testing (which, by the way, was usually done in the most public of settings, in front of one's peers), was that, according to experts, it didn't resemble the Kraus-Weber tests in any way. Rather than focusing on core and arm strength and improved flexibility, the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge simply reflected the goals and priorities of the country and people who'd formed their fitness philosophy during training in World War II, author Greg Critser explains in his book "Fatland."
President Johnson wound up changing the group's name to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, but the tests remained consistent, and the pool of award winners was reduced to just the top 15 percent of athletically gifted students.
Years later, in 2012, the test was finally abolished and replaced by a more comprehensive fitness program designed to support individual goals rather than prescribe a standard fitness regimen. According to NPR, the change was the result of decades of negative feedback from both students and teachers. "The test was totally backward," physical education teacher Joanna Faerber told the outlet. "We knew who was going to be last, and we were embarrassing them. We were pointing out their weakness."
Fitness Testing Today
So where does that leave us now? And why are teachers still "testing" kids at all? "The reason for the tests I believe is basically to collect data so the state knows fitness levels of different demographics and counties/schools/cities/etc.," Visalli says. "But we teachers do our best to turn it into goal-setting and teaching students about their bodies. We also turn it into awards for students with the most improvements, best scores, etc. to create some buy-in and get them motivated to be fit people."
While the current program continues to focus on specific areas of fitness, there's a decidedly less militaristic approach to all of it. For instance, Visalli says there are different options for each of the five categories that are tested. For cardiovascular fitness, kids can either run 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) or do the PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run) test; for muscular endurance there are several options, including the curl up test, flex arm hang or push-ups; for flexibility they can do either sit-and-reach stretch, or the shoulder stretch test.
As for body composition, Visalli says the common approach is to crunch height and weight data, but "some schools still use the antiquated skinfold measurement, which is total crap and makes kids feel horrible," she says. "This test is pretty stupid in my opinion because science has gone far beyond the understanding that height and weight data alone dictates your body composition, because we know that muscle weighs more than fat, but that isn't included in the data."
So how many kids do well on this test? "The number of kids that pass usually depends on the school," Visalli says. "In Burlingame [California] for example, where I teach, most kids pass — I'd say 85 percent — but that has to do with a lot more than just our awesome physical education teachers." She explains that the kids in her community are really active outside of school. Whereas, in more urban or even rural or poorer areas, the number of kids that pass could be much lower for many reasons. "Kids not being active outside of school due to lack of money, opportunity, program options — the list goes on," Visalli says.
State requirements vary, but in California, students in grades five, seven, and nine are required to participate in the following tests via the options listed:
- PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run)
- One-Mile Run
- Walk Test (only for ages 13 or older)
Abdominal Strength and Endurance
Upper Body Strength and Endurance
- Modified Pull-Up
- Flexed-Arm Hang
- Skinfold Measurements
- Body Mass Index
- Bioelectric Impedance Analyzer
Trunk Extensor Strength and Flexibility
- Trunk Lift
- Back-Saver Sit and Reach
- Shoulder Stretch
If you got winded just reading all that, take heart: Apparently it's not impossible for adults to perform well on the tests, but their results aren't typically compared to those of kids. "Yes, I can pass the tests," Visalli says. "However, the tests are intended with different 'healthy fitness zones' for different ages and genders. The scores differ according to those factors. For example, boys are expected to do more push-ups once puberty hits because of how hormones help them develop broader shoulders and more muscle mass then girls. So 'passing' as an adult is relative because the passing scores are meant to really only go up to around 17 or 18, when a student would still be taking the tests in high school P.E."
Curious where you'd rank? Check out the FITNESSGRAM Healthy Fit Zone Performance Standards here. But take all those numbers with a grain of salt and don't stress if you can't do a single pull-up. Turns out it matters a lot less in life than we were led to believe in junior high.