Less than two in five Orange County public school students passed the state's physical fitness test this year, with poor kids about half as likely as their non-disadvantaged counterparts to pass, according to state data.
The results of the California Physical Fitness Test, released earlier this month, reveal that 27 percent of socioeconomically disadvantaged students passed all six components of the exam, compared to 51 percent of students who are not socioeconomically disadvantaged.
The annual test was administered to 110,725 O.C. fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders in 2011-12. It measured fitness levels in six categories – aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extension strength, upper body strength and flexibility.
"With the budget crisis schools have been in, physical education and extra instruction in healthy eating and exercise are oftentimes high on the cut list," said Chris Corliss, who oversees health, sports and physical education programs for the Orange County Department of Education.
Laguna Beach High School posted the highest fitness pass rates among O.C. high schools, with 70 percent of ninth-graders passing in all six areas.
Oxford Academy, a K-8 school in Mission Viejo, posted the highest pass rates among both O.C. elementary and middle schools, with 83 percent and 85 percent pass rates for fifth- and seventh-graders, respectively.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Garden Grove's Faylane Elementary School reported a zero percent pass rate for its 87 fifth-graders – the only traditional O.C. school where no students passed.
Faylane and three other Garden Grove Unified schools with fitness challenges are participating in a county-run Healthy for Life program this year, designed to target specific areas of weakness and encourage healthy eating, said district spokesman Alan Trudell.
"Whether it be academic or physical fitness data, we make our decisions better with data than without it," Trudell said.
Earlier this year, Faylane Elementary received a $1,000 donation from an alum to purchase school sports equipment, Trudell said.
Santa Ana was home to the traditional O.C. middle school and high school with the lowest pass rates. Just 16 percent of Valley High ninth-graders passed in all six areas, while just 11.8 percent of Spurgeon Intermediate seventh-graders passed.
Corliss said a number of factors contribute to lower fitness scores among socioeconomically disadvantaged students, including a lack of awareness by their parents about how to prepare healthy and appealing food, not fully understanding the importance of being physically active, and a dearth of safe, outdoor recreation spaces.
Schools with high socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, meanwhile, tend to have equally pressing challenges regarding students' academic performance – and that takes away from emphasizing fitness, Corliss said.
"When teachers are asked to do more specialized instruction to overcome academic performance problems, it doesn't lend itself to kids getting outside," Corliss said.
O.C.'s 53,377 socioeconomically disadvantaged students who took the state fitness test are those who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.
Santa Ana Unified's strategy to combat low fitness scores has been to offer parent classes in areas such as cooking and nutrition education, as well as to diversify the campus physical activity options available to students, said district spokeswoman Deidra Powell.
"We need multiple opportunities so there's something for everyone," she said. "We want all of our students to perform well on the physical fit tests."
At Spurgeon Intermediate, a weight room is under construction, and teachers sometimes use their prep periods to walk alongside students as they complete their one-mile runs, Powell said. Spurgeon also hosts "Let's Get Moving" days every few months to publicize the importance of remaining active, Powell said.
Meanwhile, through a grant this year, Valley High School was assigned a health intern who will create a school wellness council and work to educate families about obesity, Powell said.
Orange County's average pass rate of 38 percent this year was down about 1 percentage point from last year, and down about 3 percentage points compared to two years ago.
But O.C. average scores have improved since the first year of the test in 2001, when 29 percent of students tested locally passed all six sections.
Orange County students also fared better this year than the state average, where 31 percent passed all six measures.
State education officials have expressed concern about the latest California figures, noting that physical fitness is closely linked to academic achievement. But officials also say that scores tend to improve as students get older – students who have been tracked over the five-year testing period have demonstrated "marked improvement," the state reported.
O.C. students were more likely to do well on the exam as they got older. In fifth grade, 31 percent of students tested passed, but by seventh and ninth grades, 41 percent and 43 percent passed, respectively.
Early next year, the county Department of Education will be launching a campaign to get elementary school teachers to use exercise DVD programs in their classrooms. The goal of the "Move More, Eat Healthy" initiative is to supplement elementary students' outdoor time with short periods of indoor physical activity, Corliss said. P.E. instruction tends to be spotty and uneven at the elementary level, he said.
To get an individual school's fitness data, go to: http://data1.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/page2.asp?level=School&subject=FitTest&submit1=Submit
Contact the writer: 714-796-7802 or email@example.com or Twitter: @MartindaleScott