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only 42% of American children met minimal fitness standards compared to
92% of European youth (Kraus & Hirschland, 1954). In response, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in
1956, requiring regular fitness testing of children in American schools. President
John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 article The Soft American published in Sports
Illustrated, defended the use of fitness testing as a means toward defending our
nation should the U.S. enter the Cold War. The President stated,
The harsh fact of the matter is that there is an increasingly large number of young
Americans who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens
can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation The stamina and strength
which the defense of liberty requires are not the product of a few weeks’ basic
training or a month’s conditioning. These only come from bodies which have
been conditioned by a lifetime of participation in sports and interest in physical
activity. Our struggles against aggressors throughout our history have been won
on the playgrounds and corner lots and fields of America. Thus, in a very real and
immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is
a menace to our security. (p. 16)
Almost immediately, critics of fitness testing deemed it inappropriate as a central
focus to Physical Education programs. Oberteuffer (1963) claimed, “Bludgeoned
by a Presidential plea for physical fitness, we reluctantly test and exercise, pull
up, and run-walk 600 yards, thus chasing a biological end which not only has no
relation to the educative process, but which has a built-in factor which dooms
the program to fail in our society” (p. 254).
The focus of fitness scores as an extrinsic motive to be fit has, no doubt,
contributed to the negative characterization of physical fitness testing in schools
for the last half-century. With a modern emphasis on standardized testing for
comparative purposes (normative or criterion-related), and the negative media
attention that often accompanies low fitness scores of schoolchildren (e.g., Leal
& Agopian, 2005), it is reasonable that critics have decried fitness testing as
“demeaning, embarrassing, or uncomfortable” (Rowland, 1995) and questioned
their continued usage (Cale, Harris, & Chen, 2007; Naughton, Carlson, &
We believe that fitness testing can be a positive and enjoyable experience and
a useful tool to motivate youth to be physically active if used in a developmen-
tally appropriate manner as one aspect of a comprehensive physical education
curriculum and if delivered in a positive and supportive environment. This article
is divided into two major sections. In the first section, we outline the psycho-
logical factors that impact students’ performance on fitness tests, tying them
into relevant theories of motivation and competence. The second section will
outline possible psychological reactions to, and outcomes of, fitness testing and
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FITNESS TESTING
provide instructional strategies related to the delivery and protocol of physical
fitness testing in a manner that may enhance physical education experiences.
Throughout, our objective is to address psychological considerations related
to (a) improving children’s performance and enhancing children’s experiences
during fitness assessments, and (b) the positive implementation of fitness testing
into school curricula.
PSYCHOLOGICAL VARIABLES IMPACTING
CHILDREN’S FITNESS PERFORMANCE AND
Researchers using youth fitness scores attempt to make associations between
fitness levels and various criterion variables, such as academic achievement
(California Department of Education [CDE], 2005; Grissom, 2005; Singh &
McMahan, 2006), delinquent tendencies (Sherman & Wiersma, 2005), or disease
risk (Kim et al., 2005; Ruiz et al., 2007). Moreover, fitness scores are used as
dependent variables to test physical activity intervention effectiveness (Bush,
Pittman, McKay, Ortiz, Wong, & Klish, 2007; Eliakim, Nemet, Balakirski, &
Epstein, 2007), to analyze physical education or physical activity programs
(Annesi, Westcott, Faigenbaum, & Unruh, 2005; Carrel, Clark, Peterson,
Eickhoff, & Allen, 2007), or to create a depiction of fitness levels in children
compared to past generations (Morrow, 2005; Tomkinson, Leger, Olds, &
Cazorla, 2003). Any inferences about scores, however, are limited to the extent
to which they are reflective of children’s actual fitness levels. The validity of
these inferences is contingent on psychological variables that impact children’s
Internal validity refers to the extent to which scores on an assessment are
reflective of the actual performance of the participant rather than some other,
outside explanation or factor. Potential threats to internal validity in fitness
testing may include, among many other things, psychological or motivational
factors that may impact on children’s performance, the two most important of
which are motivation and effort. To put it simply, why would a student want
to perform well on standardized fitness testing? What rewards—intrinsic or
extrinsic—are generally present to bring out the student’s greatest effort? In the
absence of positive motivation and concerted effort, is it likely that children’s
scores are reflective of actual fitness levels? Delivering fitness testing in a manner
that increases motivation and effort will increase the internal validity of fitness
testing in youth and, more importantly, may contribute to students’ perceptions
of efficacy, enjoyment, and interest in physical activity.
This section will overview three psychological theories that relate to
maximizing students’ performance on fitness testing and that provide an
170 WIERSMA AND SHERMAN
understanding of how testing can lead to positive affective outcomes such as
competence and enjoyment. The theories include the psychological aspects of
goal orientation (Nicholls, 1984, 1989), competence motivation (Harter, 1981),
and cognitive evaluation theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985).
According to the goal-orientation theory, students can be motivated by a task (or
mastery) orientation, focusing on personal improvement, learning, and effort, or
by an ego (or performance) orientation through which a focus on comparisons
with others is of primary importance (Ames & Archer, 1988; Duda & Nicholls,
1992; Nicholls, 1984, 1989). Research in physical activity and sport environ-
ments has found that students with a task orientation perform well in settings
in which personal improvement and skill mastery is reinforced, while students
with an ego orientation who have high perceptions of competence perform well
with social comparisons and challenges (Duda, 1989; Roberts & Treasure, 1995).
Conversely, task-oriented individuals who perceive an overemphasis on public
evaluation may perform poorly or anxiously, while ego-oriented individuals have
a tendency to give up easily if they cannot perform as well as their peers “as
a strategy to avoid embarrassment and maintain perceptions of competence”
(Solomon, 1996, p. 737).
Administrators of fitness tests should keep in mind that different strategies can
be used to enhance motivation and effort for children of differing achievement
goal orientations. In our field-based testing of elementary school children, we
have found success in many of these strategies (offered throughout this article)
and have observed high levels of effort from students as a result. It is important
to note that fitness testing is only one part of physical education programs and
is usually not a primary criterion for a student’s grade, and it can be integrated
as an important aspect of a well-balanced program. Administering fitness tests
as a one-time assessment to fulfill district or state requirements makes testing
an isolated part of the curriculum and does not establish sufficient buy-in from
students about its importance. Teachers or administrators who adopt a tone that
“testing is mandated and we need to get it out of the way so we can get back
to our curriculum” send that message to the students, who in turn will likely
perform in the same nondescript manner.
Teaching students the skills to be tested, such as the appropriate form for
push-ups or pacing techniques for aerobic capacity measures, and providing
time in class throughout the year to practice the skills, will allow for a focus
on mastery and improvement. Providing opportunities to perform the skills
without being tested may build students’ competence and allow them to practice
without the pressure to perform. Administering fitness tests by rotating students
in small groups based on similar skill or fitness levels reduces the possibility of
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FITNESS TESTING
embarrassment from lower-skilled students performing in front of other students
and allows for more favorable comparisons with peers. While others have argued
that fitness testing may demotivate lower skilled children or discourage them to
be physically fit (Corbin, Pangrazi, & Welk, 1995; Rowland, 1995), we believe
that a testing environment can be created that encourages even the least-skilled
or least-fit children to try their best in testing situations.
Students to whom social comparison is important also may be motivated to
perform well on fitness testing. These students tend to have higher perceptions of
competence, are often well-skilled, and regularly participate in physical activities.
Challenges tend to work well for this group, and they function as an important
and relevant form of incentive to try hard. For instance, students who are ego
oriented can be motivated by knowing performance-based percentile ranks, class
high scores, or performance on previous tests. If a small group of such students
is tested together, they can encourage each other and support each other to reach
high standards. While this form of motivation does not work for all children, it
can be used responsibly for some children who would benefit from these motives.
The development of competence is considered a primary motivation for young
people to engage in a task (Harter, 1981). Engaging in a task does not mean just
doing it, but investing one’s attention and effort into it and challenging oneself
to improve. According to the Competence Motivation theory, individuals engage
in an activity for the purpose of mastery, which serves as a reward in and of
itself; information reinforcing perceptions of competence increases enjoyment of
the task which, in turn, leads to continued challenge and improvement (Harter,
1981). Competence can be derived through one’s own assessment of performance
(which is difficult for young performers but becomes more refined as a child
matures) or through the feedback provided by others, most notably teachers,
parents, coaches, or peers.
The role of fitness testing in the development of competence is thus dependent
on the extent to which performance on early mastery attempts leads to a desire to
get better at the task and to be excited for future mastery attempts. Undoubtedly,
students who do not perform well on such tests can internalize that information
and can be less motivated to display their (lack of) fitness to other students. The
converse holds true for those who perform well on the tests and who internalize
that success such that they are motivated to continue doing the task in the future.
The key is how the teacher or administrator of the tests uses test results in a
manner that can motivate all students regardless of perceived ability.
Using performance indicators on physical fitness tests can be a motivational
tool for students of all abilities. If similar tests are used year to year, and teachers
focus on and reinforce improvement, students could be provided with feedback
172 WIERSMA AND SHERMAN
that they are, in fact, becoming more skilled at certain tasks, more fit, and
healthier compared to previous years. While improvement over time (year to
year) is related to natural growth and biological maturity, healthy fitness zones
are established relative to age and can be used to monitor progress controlling
for maturation throughout childhood and adolescence. During an academic year,
students can be guided to plot their scores over testing occasions and use previous
scores to develop reasonable, challenging, and specific goals related to specific
fitness areas. Prior to subsequent testing, teachers can ask a student, “Look at the
number of push-ups you completed in the November test. Compare that to the
healthy fitness range chart. What can you do in the next 6 weeks to improve?”
This dialogue, with goal development, can be used to guide all children to be
successful, not just those whose perceptions of ability are already high.
Cognitive Evaluation Theory
Another theory of motivation relevant to the psychology of fitness testing
is Deci and Ryan’s (1985) conceptualization of cognitive evaluation theory,
which posits that perceptions of competence, effort, and enjoyment are influ-
enced by perceptions of control and choice. To the extent that young people
receive feedback about ability and attribute that performance to intrinsic versus
extrinsic factors, they become more or less motivated to engage in that task.
Extrinsic factors in a performer’s environment can have a negative impact
on one’s intrinsic motivation, and positive information about an individual’s
performance may enhance motivation while negative information may reduce
it. In this regard, the use of normative feedback (percentile ranks or physical
fitness awards, for example) versus criterion-referenced feedback (i.e., healthy
fitness zones) may have differential effects on motivation. Whitehead and Corbin
(1991), for example, presented bogus feedback to students based on whether
they performed at a higher or a lower percentile rank (when no such data were
actually collected) and found that students who were told that they were in a
low ranking (“Compared to other junior high school boys/girls your score is in
the bottom 20% range”) had subsequent decreases in intrinsic motivation. The
researchers concluded that “interpreting fitness results through percentile-based
categorization may reduce the intrinsic motivation of those who need it the
most—those relatively low in fitness” (p. 229).
Practitioners can deliver fitness testing with these theories in mind. We agree
with a number of researchers (Cale & Harris, 2005; Freedson & Rowland, 1992;
Goudas, Biddle, & Fox, 1994; Morrow, 2005) that children should receive infor-
mation relative to a healthy fitness standard (criterion) rather than a normative
rank and that grading students based on fitness scores is inappropriate and does
not promote students to increase physical activity levels (Corbin, 2002; Corbin
et al., 1995). Focusing on controllable factors such as effort (“I know some of
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FITNESS TESTING
you are not really excited about running today, but let’s try to get your heart
rate to the upper end of your range”) or attention (“It’s really important that you
focus on your pacing when you run back and forth—try to get about 2 seconds
rest between laps”) downplays the role of environmental or genetic factors that
may influence fitness levels.
Putting fitness testing into a proper motivational context will vary based
on the personality and achievement orientation of students in a testing cohort.
The first author has used different strategies to introduce the FITNESSGRAM®
(Meredith & Welk, 2005) to children in an after-school physical activity program
in which testing was used to measure intervention effectiveness. Children were
tested in small groups and rotated through stations, some of which were other
tests and some of which were small group games; the testing was spread out
over several days to allow for smaller group assessment. The small groups
were put together based on similar skill level and motivation of the students
once these aspects became clear. For a group of 11-year-old boys who were
physically fit and who also had competitive sport experience (in this case,
soccer), the FITNESSGRAM® was introduced as a battery of tests similar
to those used by professional scouts in the National Football League, Major
League Baseball, and Major League Soccer. The boys were told that fitness
was an important part of playing sports and that teams needed to see how fit
potential players were to decide if they should be drafted. The boys linked
what they were about to do with an activity performed by their role models
and were noticeably interested in performing the tests with excitement and
effort. Another benefit of this approach is that it potentially bridges the gap
between performing a fitness task with something relevant and meaningful to
their lives, something that is commonly lacking in youth fitness testing situations
(Hopple & Graham, 1995).
A small group of girls, in contrast, were introduced to the tests and were
told that it would be interesting to see how they could perform compared to the
boys. As this group of girls was developmentally more advanced at age 11 than
their male classmates, this was not only a reasonable comparison to make, but
it made the girls excited about the prospect of comparing favorably and getting
excited to rise to the challenge. We understand that these approaches would
likely not be approved of by those who differentiate sports performance from
physical activity testing (in the case of the boys) or who discourage comparison
to others (as in the case of the girls), especially in light of what was discussed in
the previous paragraphs. The point is that different motivational strategies can
be used depending on the situation, and, as stated earlier, while an approach
may not work with everybody, it can be used when it may be appropriate.
Maximizing student motivation and effort is necessary to make proper inferences
about fitness test results, and creating a motivating and positive environment
in which all students strive for high performance is challenging but possible.
174 WIERSMA AND SHERMAN
Knowing one’s students—their levels of efficacy and motivational orientation,
for example—is critical in this regard and is reflective of the student-centered
approach that is embraced by effective educators.
STRATEGIES FOR EDUCATIONALLY AND
PSYCHOLOGICALLY SOUND FITNESS TESTING
Unlike standardized testing in the classroom (such as in math or reading),
physical fitness tests can be physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Tests to
fatigue (such as in running to exhaustion [i.e., the PACER (Progressive Aerobic
Cardiovascular Endurance Run)] or the flexed-arm hang), as well as maximal
tests of strength (such as push-ups or curl-ups), generally lead to some degree of
discomfort. These feelings may be especially uncomfortable (and even foreign)
to children who are not regularly active and are not used to exerting themselves
physically. Moreover, when students are tested in a public setting in which others
observe, or when they perform alongside their peers, they may be more likely to
invoke peer comparison and feel embarrassed if they do not appear to perform
favorably. Results that provide potentially embarrassing feedback to students on
variables, such as skinfold measurements or height and weight measures, also
have the potential to affect students emotionally. While this may, to some extent,
exist with classroom-based achievement tests, we believe it is more likely to
exist in physical education settings. Teachers have a responsibility, therefore,
to conduct the testing in a caring and sensitive manner and to be aware of the
potential negative implications that could accompany fitness testing.
The previous section outlined the importance of accounting for motivation and
effort in making valid inferences about scores from physical fitness test results.
The primary purpose of this section is to examine physical fitness testing from
the psychological perspective in terms of how testing is described, developed,
and evaluated in the schools and its potential impact on students. It is noted
that fitness testing should not exist apart from a well-designed and developmen-
tally appropriate PE program. Furthermore, the application of fitness testing is
inappropriate without sufficient attention to developing and communicating: (a)
clear and measurable objectives consistent with national and/or state physical
education standards, (b) educational content that sets up the need and protocol
for fitness testing, and (c) essential steps in an educationally and psychologically
sound testing protocol. As others have written, physical activity (i.e., develop-
mentally appropriate PE) is the process, and fitness is the outcome (e.g., Corbin &
Pangrazi, 1993; Morrow, 2007); students need to understand and benefit from
the process if they are to fully understand and achieve the outcome.
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FITNESS TESTING
Objectives Consistent with Physical Education Standards
As stated throughout this article, fitness testing that is not an integral part of
the larger curriculum can lead to unmotivated performance by students and
adverse reactions to testing. More than a decade ago, Hopple and Graham (1995)
interviewed children on what they “think, feel, and know” about school-based
fitness testing (specifically the mile run), and concluded that their perceptions
were “not entirely flattering” (p. 415). The majority of participants could not
articulate the objective of being tested, identified clever ways in which they could
get out of the test, and viewed the test as uncomfortable and lacking in meaning.
In essence, these findings are consistent with past (and current) criticism that
fitness testing fails to meet educational objectives (Cale et al., 2007; Keating &
Silverman, 2004; Rowland, 1995).
The foundation for fitness testing should be the promotion of enjoyable and
regular physical activity participation leading toward the eventual development
of life-long physical activity behaviors. Physical activity and fitness tracking
and assessment should be executed with this foundational philosophy in mind.
National and state education bodies (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, National
Association for Sport and Physical Education [NASPE], state Departments of
Education) have articulated the need for increasing student understanding of
the role and application of fitness assessment and the appropriate focus on
psychological principles that apply to participation in and receiving benefits of
physical activity. For example, national physical education standards (NASPE,
2004a) include Standard 4 (“Achieves and maintains a health-enhancing level
of physical fitness”) and Standard 6 (“Values physical activity for health,
enjoyment, challenge, self-expression, and social interaction”). Three California
physical education standards (CDE, 2006) relate to assessing and maintaining
physical fitness, demonstrating knowledge of physical fitness, and utilizing
knowledge of psychological concepts, principles, and strategies that apply to
learning and performing physical activity. These standards provide additional
merit for the responsible use of fitness testing in the public schools. The next
section will identify and discuss fitness testing practices that have children’s and
adolescents’ best interests at heart, emanating primarily from a psychologically
Educational Content: Setting up the Need and Protocol
for Fitness Testing
From the international comparisons and presidential propaganda of the 1950s
and 1960s, to the years leading to the academic and assessment emphases of the
No Child Left Behind era (Public Law 107-110, 2002), to the current concern of
childhood inactivity, the place and importance of physical education in schools
176 WIERSMA AND SHERMAN
has been ambiguous. Even today, in an era when the increasing prevalence of
obesity is common knowledge, educational administrators struggle to embrace,
fund, and support regularly scheduled and developmentally appropriate physical
education in the schools. We believe that education of children and adolescents
should include the importance of physical activity participation and the physical
and psychological benefits of becoming physically fit, and that physical fitness
testing can be used to help children and adolescents understand where they are,
relative to receiving the greatest benefits of being fit.
Teachers should emphasize that fitness test results are a combination of
students’ current fitness level (how active you are, how much you move and
exercise), their genetics (from your parents, whether you are short or tall, or your
body type), maturation (stage of development of your body as you get older),
motivation (do you really want to do this test?), and effort (how hard do you
try?). In essence, teachers can tell students, “You may really want to do the test
(motivated) and really try hard (effort), but your body is not as ready (developed)
as the bodies of some of your classmates.” Teachers should emphasize that it is
sometimes not logical to compare scores to other classmates (“Hey, this apple
doesn’t taste like an orange”), but that students SHOULD want to compare their
test results to (a) their previous test results, and (b) a health standard, such as
the Healthy Fitness Zone. Children can be told that if they score in the Healthy
Fitness Zone, “many researchers feel your body is protected from many of the
diseases that can occur from being unfit.”
One major factor that is under the control of the students is the amount of
moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in which they regularly engage.
Although quantity of regular MVPA is a primary topic of another article in
this issue (Welk, this issue), it is worth discussion at this point because of
the connection between participation in regular MVPA and the psychological
antecedents and consequences of an educationally sound physical education
program with fitness education as one of several important cornerstones.
The study and application of physical activity antecedents are important
from the perspective of adoption, adherence, and noncompliance. Most physical
activity promotion models (i.e., Social-Cognitive Theory [Bandura, 1977, 1986],
Youth Physical Activity Promotion Model [Welk, 1999], Value-Expectancy
Theory [Eccles & Harold, 1991]) include correlates or precursors of physical
activity that include those that can be influenced by physical fitness testing.
Welk’s (1999) Youth Physical Activity Promotion model, in particular, outlines
enabling (physical fitness and skills), predisposing (perceptions of competence,
enjoyment, attitudes), and reinforcing (parents, teachers, peers) factors that
increase or decrease the likelihood that youth voluntarily engage in physical
activities. When teachers use fitness testing appropriately, make it fun and
enjoyable, and allow students opportunities to improve, they engage in behavior
that encourages young people to try different physical activities (e.g., riding
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FITNESS TESTING
bikes, playing tag games, joining a soccer team, shooting baskets) and perform
them regularly. Many of these teaching behaviors are congruent with a mastery
motivational climate, in which children are given the opportunity to participate
in a wide variety of physical activities (e.g., running, dodging, galloping,
dribbling, throwing/catching, kicking, striking) in a manner that affords them
many opportunities to practice (e.g., one ball for every child maximizes the
opportunities to play). In so doing, games and activities should minimize wait
time (inactivity) and spotlighting (a couple of students participating while
other watch), and allow children to play, improve, and focus on their own
skill development. Importantly, this is generally how students define “fun”:
participating/playing and improving/getting better. Students who regularly
engage in developmentally appropriate physical activity will likely perform
favorably on physical fitness tests.
Desirable psychological consequences of physical activity behaviors can be
discussed broadly as the reduction of negative, or the promotion of positive, acute
or chronic psychological states. Teachers, coaches, and parents who understand
some of these consequences are in a good position to educate students as to the
psychological benefits of regular MVPA and encourage students to increase their
awareness of such benefits, which include positive mood (Calfas & Taylor, 1994),
self-concept and self-esteem (Fox, 2000; Spence, McGannon, & Poon, 2005),
stress reduction (Crews & Landers, 1987; Spalding, Lyon, Steel, & Hatfield,
2004), anxiety reduction (Goodwin, 2003; Petruzello, Landers, Hatfield, Kubitz,
& Salazar, 1991), and depression reduction (Motl, Birnbaum, Kubik, & Dishman,
2004; North, McCullagh, & Tran, 1990). Fitness testing performed outside the
context of regular and developmentally appropriate physical education may result
in negative psychological states, which, in turn, may lead to disengagement from,
nonparticipation in, and/or distaste for regular physical activity.
Essential Steps in an Educationally and Psychologically
Sound Testing Protocol
Execution of the physical fitness assessment process includes following devel-
opmentally appropriate and educationally sound practices (American Alliance
for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance [AAHPERD], 1999a,
1999b; Corbin et al., 1995). Although these practices are not original, they will
be discussed with a primary focus on psychological concepts related to fitness
assessment in youth.
First, educators must engage students regularly (i.e., daily) in developmentally
appropriate physical education practices that engage them in a minimum of
50% MVPA time for the scheduled physical education period (U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2000). For many PE programs,
this would result in approximately 20 to 30 min of MVPA a day. Regularly
178 WIERSMA AND SHERMAN
delivered physical education will foster broad skill competencies as students are
engaged in and learn a variety of movement forms, physical skills, and specialized
sport skills. As students gain broad skill competencies, several psychological
constructs are likely to be affected, including self-concept (“I am a mover”),
enjoyment or liking of games and sport (“I like learning and playing games in
PE and at recess”), and competence (“I am good at lots of different games and
sports”). In addition, students are engaging in regular MVPA, which is at least
moderately related to health-related physical fitness and will develop a good
fitness foundation in initial level preparation for fitness testing.
Second, opportunities can also be provided to engage in additional MVPA
during the school day and immediately after school (e.g., structured and
semi-structured activity choices provided during recess and lunch periods and
after-school intramural sport opportunities). In addition to structured physical
education, these opportunities will help students meet the recommended 60
min or more of daily MVPA (NASPE, 2004b; Strong et al., 2005; USDHHS,
2000). Combined with regular PE, these additional opportunities to be physically
active will help many students achieve a minimum level of fitness that will
allow them to safely participate in fitness testing protocols and likely achieve
minimum health standards (e.g., score in the Healthy Fitness Zone for the
Third, fitness test items include assessments for body composition, cardio-
vascular endurance, and musculoskeletal fitness. The latter two categories of
assessment include specific assessments that are performed to exhaustion (e.g.,
PACER, push-ups, curl-ups). Other assessments have technical components that
require knowledge of test protocol for valid measurement (e.g., back-saver sit
and reach, trunk lift). For these reasons and others (e.g., test anxiety, stress from
the unknown, safe test execution), instruction, training, and practice with each
fitness test is required. The second author recalls participating in the Presidential
Fitness Test as a fifth grader in the mid 1970s. One of the test items was the
bench push-up. After performing approximately 70 bench push-ups on a Friday,
he had to sit out from participation in two Little League baseball games (Saturday
and Sunday), as he was not able to lift his arms above his waist. Adequate
exposure to test protocol likely would have prevented this situation.
Some of the exceptional physical education programs in the Orange County
(CA) area include 5 min of test-specific fitness training every day after the
daily warm-up activity (e.g., PACER practice, sets of curl-ups or push-ups
with varying, student-selected, number of repetitions). Sometimes the warm-up
itself is the fitness training (e.g., squats, lunges, curl-ups, or push-ups). Fitness
activities can be performed as a game. For example, two partner activities that
both authors use in working with children, adolescents, and adults are: (a) Quick
Hands (hand tag in push-up position) and (b) Ball Pass (in curl-up position).
In the first game, two students face each other in correct push-up position
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FITNESS TESTING
(students maintain position on toes for as long as they can and then may move
to knees). The object is to tag your partner’s hand (left or right) with your
finger tips (finger tips discourages slapping and smashing behaviors) without
getting tagged yourself. No points are kept, and no rewards are offered (except
for participating and laughing). In the second game, students sit in a curl-up
position, toes to toes, with shoulders flexed and elbows extended, passing a ball
back and forth. In both games, after 15–30 sec of participation, students are
requested to quickly find and play with a new partner. Each game is repeated
with a new partner 5 to 10 times. Obviously, with these games, the focus is on fun
(e.g., enjoyment of physical activity, playing with others, getting better/stronger,
building confidence). In addition, students can be encouraged to participate in
strengthening or flexibility exercises while doing homework (e.g., stretching
while reading, 30-sec breaks every 15 min to do squats, lunges, curl-ups, or
push-ups). Some physical education programs require students to keep physical
activity logs for after-school and weekend hours. Students are not necessarily
graded on whether they choose to be physically active, but are required to
submit activity logs and discuss motives, activity choices, and likely outcomes
or consequences (short- and long-term) of those choices.
Finally, after students have learned about and practiced the fitness tests and
participated in regular MVPA, it is appropriate to engage them in the assessment
of their personal fitness levels. Students should engage in fitness testing regularly,
as often as every 4 to 8 weeks. Fitness testing in this capacity is formative; that
is, information is used from the fitness testing as feedback to guide students
in adopting or adhering to new behaviors or maintaining previously established
behaviors. Fitness testing also results in regular feedback regarding fitness goals.
Although we have seen schools spend an entire week (or more) completing
state-mandated fitness tests, the testing protocol could easily be completed in
one 40-min period with a class size of up to 40 students. In this scenario, for
upper elementary to high school students (most 10-year olds and up), six fitness
stations are set up. Students select a trusted partner to complete the tests with and
move about the stations at their preference (Corbin, 2007). Some stations require
assistance from a teacher or cadence CD (e.g., PACER), while others do not
(height, weight, trunk lift, back-saver sit and reach). Most student pairs become
trusting partners; infrequently, teacher intervention is required and reassignment
necessary. Students are constantly reminded to focus on their own fitness status
and ignore others. Our experience has demonstrated that when students know
that their grade or some status award is not related to their fitness scores, but that
their scores are for their knowledge, they are truthful and conscientious. Students
learn that the PE teacher is also interested in their fitness scores because he or
she is in a good position to help, guide, and encourage them as they develop
healthy behaviors related to physical activity participation and fitness outcomes.
180 WIERSMA AND SHERMAN
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The purpose of this article was to provide insight into the psychological
issues surrounding children’s performance on fitness tests, strategies to enhance
students’ experiences during testing, and ways in which testing protocols can
be appropriately implemented in schools. Table 1 provides a summary of the
most relevant psychological aspects of fitness testing and implementation, all of
which increase the likelihood that positive outcomes may result from gathering
information on youth health and fitness. Many challenges still exist, and we
believe that researchers still need to determine the connection between youth
fitness, physical activity involvement, and the promotion of healthy lifestyles
in young people. We also know that past generations of students have less-
than-fond memories of fitness testing as a result of inappropriate practices that
have likely turned them off to physical activity, and that it can be difficult to
convince school administrators, physical activity researchers, and parents who
are the product of these generations that testing can be positive and enjoyable. If
physical fitness testing practices are done thoughtlessly, and if conditions lead
to negative reactions in youth, then testing should not be done. However, with
the recent resurgence of arguments for and against the value of fitness testing,
amid vast public awareness of the crisis surrounding the sedentary nature of
many youth, we are once again faced with the challenge of not only doing it,
but doing it right. And like anything else, doing it right means doing it in the
best interests of youth, with a focus on youth, in a way that can truly benefit
Review of Psychological Implications and Practices of Physical Fitness Testing
1. The foundation of fitness testing should be on the promotion of enjoyable and regular physical
2. Testing should take place as an integrated aspect of a physical education curriculum with
opportunities to practice skills and fitness activities in fun, game-like conditions.
3. Students should be provided with the opportunity to regularly assess their own fitness (with a
trusted partner) in informal testing sessions. The emphases of these sessions should be on
self-responsibility, trust, and self-improvement.
4. Fitness test “data” should be used to help students draw conclusions about their activity choices
and plan for health-related physical fitness maintenance or improvement.
5. Task-oriented students perform best when improvement and skill mastery is reinforced, while
ego-oriented students with high perceptions of competence perform well with social or
6. Teachers should use criterion-referenced standards to provide feedback on student performance
and focus on controllable factors such as motivation, effort, and developing a passion for
7. Physical education programs that promote competence and enjoyment set students up for a
positive physical fitness testing experience and for the achievement of healthy fitness scores.
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FITNESS TESTING
youth. The role of education is to build skills in children, to inspire them to
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areas of life. In this regard, we urge test administrators and teachers to structure
testing environments that are positive and challenging and that inspire youth to
be aware of, and interested in, their fitness levels and take steps to engage in a
lifetime of play, activity, and exercise.
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