Health & Fitness Column

President’s Challenge being replaced

By John Taylor | Mar 19, 2013
Photo by: File John Taylor

The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition has announced that the President’s Challenge is going to be retired at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, and is being replaced with the FitnessGram.
First established in 1955 by the Eisenhower administration, the President’s Challenge was created in reaction to reports that found many soldiers in World War II and the Korean War had failed their pre-draft fitness tests. This, coupled with a report in “Time Magazine” that found European children had higher fitness test scores than American children prompted schools to increase physical activity opportunities and education.
Since it’s inception, the President’s Challenge rewarded students who demonstrated physical aptitude in six tests; body mass index, curl-ups or sit-ups, pull-ups or arm-hang, one mile run or walk, shuttle run, and sit and reach or v-sit.
If a student’s performance in all six of these tests were in the 85th percentile based on their age and gender, that student was awarded the President’s Award. If a student scored between the 50th and 84th percentile in all six tests, they were awarded the National Award.
Opponents of the President’s Challenge say that the test turns health into a competition. Because the test categorizes a student’s performance to be good or deficient based on national averages, there are those who believe this practice is unfair because being healthy does necessarily require somebody to be the fastest or the strongest.  
“The (President’s) Challenge rewards students who are already fit, but doesn’t help those who are not physically fit to improve their lifestyle habits,” said Steven Miller, Physical Education Teacher at Bridgewater Academy in Myrtle Beach, SC. “The President’s Challenge scoring also becomes more inaccurate every year. Since unfit students are becoming more common every school year, the national averages are decreasing, making it impossible to fully prove where the 85th percentile on each test actually lies.”
In comparison, the goal of the FitnessGram is to accurately evaluate student fitness levels, and develop an individualized approach to improve a learner’s healthy lifestyle habits.
Proponents of the FitnessGram argue students are able to improve and obtain health fitness standards that have been set for each age and gender. While the President’s Challenge and the FitnessGram both test muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, strength, body composition, and flexibility, FitnessGram representatives say they have created a model that better assesses health related fitness.
For example, the President’s Challenge assesses body composition by measuring students’ body mass index, which FitnessGram proponents say is ineffective because body mass does not differentiate between water weight, muscle weight, bone density, and fat weight. As a result, the FitnessGram utilizes a body fat percentage test to provide a better gauge of a student’s healthy body composition.
“The FitnessGram actually challenges the participants more than the President’s Challenge,” said Brad Hammond, Physical Education Teacher at Andrews High School in Andrews, NC. “The award system with the Presidential is complimentary for those who are considered more physically fit. Being physically fit is more than just being recognized. It’s a lifestyle that physical educators are trying to teach this society. We recognize every students’ efforts with a certificate when they pass the FitnessGram. The look on their face when they receive the award is priceless.”
However, there are others who argue that the FitnessGram creates the proverbial “everyone gets a trophy” scenario, and doesn’t reward students who maintain a high level of fitness because they get the same award as the learner who spends their afterschool life eating Cheetos and playing video games.
“Educators are making it seem like academia is the only place being competitive matters, and that being competitive in a physical nature is overrated and not important,” said Jeb Smith, a nationally-ranked Olympic powerlifter and CrossFit instructor in Charleston, WV. “But rewarding everyone, no matter what, is going to do nothing for the problem we are facing with childhood obesity. The whole “everyone wins” sets kids up for failure in life. Not everyone wins. Everyone doesn’t get in, everyone doesn’t get the job, everyone doesn’t get the raise. Teaching kids now that if you just show up and participate, and don’t do anything above and beyond to separate yourself from the pack, is setting another generation of kids up for failure in the real world.”
There are even professionals who have worked exclusively with students with low fitness levels that feel it is important to assess and track learner fitness levels, but also agree higher-performing students should be recognized differently than those who don’t perform at the same level.
“I don’t see anything wrong with giving students extra incentives for performing better on a fitness test,” said Trent Shumway, Academic Adviser at the University of Illinois, and a former Program Supervisor at weight loss camps throughout the United States. “I have a problem with giving the same recognition to every student. I do like how the FitnessGram software tracks student fitness scores throughout their academic career, but I also believe students who do well should be given the incentive they earned, not just because they showed up for the test.”
However, Hammond brings up how students with lower fitness levels are effected by not being recognized for their efforts, which may have been the genesis for the retirement of the President’s Challenge.
“I think the recognition is nice, but what about those who come into PE with no athletic ability?” said Hammond, a graduate of Western Carolina University. “The progress they make may not meet the requirements for an award. Should that child be left out of the award ceremony? I don’t think that’s fair at all.”
I see both sides of this argument, and really, there is no right answer. We can’t say that the athletic students don’t deserve recognition because they’ll get it through sports or recreation programs, mainly because that would be like saying a student can’t receive an award for getting an A+ science because they also got an award for their A+ in math. However, no teacher wants a student to feel bad about themselves for not receiving recognition for improvements in their fitness levels because they didn’t meet a particular standard.
In the first time in my life, I’m speechless and can’t make up my mind which is the right answer. It was bound to happen, right?