Content standards collide with P.E. alternatives

Content standards collide with P.E. alternatives

(Calif.) Marching band. Reserve Officers Training Corps. Dance and cheer. Rodeo.

California high school students who participate in these and other extra-curricular athletic activities may be excused by their local districts from having to take regular physical education courses required for graduation.

But there is growing concern that these pupils, while physically active, are not receiving the educational content required under state-mandated P.E. standards. Lawmakers who’ve seen several bills in recent years aimed at specifying particular activities as eligible for exemption think it might be time to revisit the rules.

“This does open up a can of worms, so to speak,” Sen. Carol Liu said during a hearing last week on legislation clarifying that participation in high school rodeo can be grounds for a P.E. exemption.

“I hope that we can send some kind of message that somebody at the California Department of Education should be looking at this conundrum we have of people coming before us all the time asking for exemptions,” said Liu, a Democrat from La Canada Flintridge who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

California, attempting to combat an epidemic of obesity among school-age children and teens, was among the first states in the nation to mandate the amount of time students must spend in P.E. class.

The law states that the emphasis should be on physical activity but it also requires that students in grades 9-12 receive instruction in “a developmental sequence” across eight different subject areas.

The California Department of Education, in offering guidance around the related statutes, differentiates between physical activity and physical education, saying: “The terms…are often used interchangeably, but they differ in important ways. Every student needs both a quality PE program and physical activity program.”

The law gives school districts considerable discretion in terms of deciding what programs qualify a student for an exemption from P.E. classes but there are vagaries that cause confusion and uneven application across the state.

This, in part, has led to “spot bills” coming before the Legislature to specifically acknowledge that districts may grant P.E. exemptions for certain activities. None have passed.

In 2009 the CDE issued a letter from then-Superintendent Jack O’Connell addressing several questions around physical education requirements, including whether students in marching band, Junior ROTC and similar type activities could receive P.E. credit for those programs. For the most part, according to the letter, it is ultimately up to the district to decide whether these activities meet the physical education goals laid out by the state.

Last week, the bill from Republican Sen. Jean Fuller of Bakersfield that would add rodeo to the list was passed on by Lui’s committee to the Senate floor for a vote but not before it sparked the discussion about whether further state intervention is warranted.

Cindy Lederer, a P.E. teacher with the Fairfield/Suisun Unified School District and representative of the California Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, voiced her group’s “extreme opposition” to SB 138 saying that while rodeo no doubt offers students a learning opportunity and physical activity, it does not meet the state’s adopted high school content standards for physical education.

“We are very much in support of activities that encourage students to be active both during and beyond the school day,” Lederer told the Senate panel. “But these activities should be highly encouraged to supplement but never supplant quality physical education programs in our schools.”

A spokeswoman for the American Heart and American Stroke Associations expressed opposition to the bill as well, saying, “We view physical education as an essential part of the total curriculum, and we do not support extra-curricular activity taking the place of physical education.”

Members of the Senate Education Committee, for the most part, had no problem with rodeo being added to the list of extra-curricular activities that can be considered for a P.E. exemption. Several, however, expressed concern that perhaps it’s time to consider aligning in some way the content standards with those activities offered outside of P.E. class.

“I do think rodeo qualifies as physical activity,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. “Obviously, these kids are very fit and have a love of adventure, but maybe we ought to look at the whole array of [exemptions] and set some standards around them.”

According to the CDE, the state’s P.E. content standards adopted by the California State Board of Education involve separate sets of overarching standards for K-8 and 9-12 based on eight required content areas that provide a developmentally appropriate, standards-based sequence of instruction. The required content standards are:

  • Effects of physical activity upon dynamic health
  • Mechanics of body movement
  • Aquatics
  • Gymnastics and tumbling
  • Individual and dual sports
  • Rhythm and dance
  • Team sports
  • Combatives

Districts are free to design their physical education programs around these standards, and are also given leave to determine how extra-curricular physical activities meet those standards – rules that led committee staff to suggest that bills like SB 138 aren’t necessary.

“Current law authorizes schools to exempt from physical education courses students who participate in a ‘regular school-sponsored interscholastic athletic program,’” staff wrote in an analysis of the bill.

However, the analysis also pointed out that “standards, criteria, or guidance do not exist regarding which sports may qualify for an exemption.”

Fuller said her bill is needed because many districts do not recognize the achievements of students who participate in alternative athletic programs like rodeo. Many California students are ranked nationally in the sport, for which they practice long hours outside of school hours. Exempting them from physical education classes gives them extra time during the day to keep up on their school work.

She argued that by the time a student qualifies for the P.E. exemption in his or her sophomore year of high school, he or she has been taking physical education classes since kindergarten. Fuller also said schools need to support the goals and dreams of kids who choose to participate in activities other than traditional sports.