Fitness Testing for Kids: What Exactly Should We Be Testing For?

Fitness testing is a snapshot of a point in time, but kids tend to develop non-linearly. How valid is fitness testing for kids and what should we be looking for?

Have you ever thought about the way our kids are tested for fitness? Fitness testing usually happens in physical education class where students are on display in front of their classmates, who, of course, are judging them during every test. Imagine how most of us would feel if we used this method in all classes. The teacher calls your name to go to the board and solve 24 (452/26+19) + 47 or asks you to pick whether the Battle of Antietam occurred in 1860, 1861, 1862, or 1863. For those with the requisite knowledge or skill, this would not be a harrowing experience, but for the majority it is an inefficient and often degrading means to determine the “answer.”

What Is the Question for Which Testing Provides the Answer?

In youth fitness, we need to first determine the question to see if we are on the right track for the answer. What is fitness? The definition has changed since many of us were in school. Fitness at one time included health-fitness (cardiovascular endurance, muscle endurance, muscle strength, flexibility, and body composition) and skills-fitness (speed, power, agility, balance, and coordination). Those students with age-appropriate health-fitness and skills-fitness performed well on fitness tests (remember the President’s Council fitness tests?). The goal was to have all students be proficient in all fitness attributes.

The modern definition of fitness includes only health-fitness in an effort to be sure our children don’t grow up with the same chronic conditions that plague adults, like obesity, low-back pain, and heart disease. The trouble is there is no longitudinal data to support this approach and who has ever heard a third grader state he or she wants to play, exercise, and participate in sports to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease?

Testing for Physical Literacy

Shouldn’t the goal of youth testing (if testing is at all valid) be to help give kids the skills they need to be physically active for a lifetime? We should focus on developing kids’ motor skill competence and self-efficacy of movement, which are important components of a construct known as physical literacy.1,2 Physical literacy, as defined by Whitehead, is “The motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for maintaining purposeful physical pursuits/activities throughout the life course.”This sounds like a much more worthy purpose than seeing if the results for third graders on the back-saver sit-and-reach (an admittedly invalid test as a measure of low-back flexibility) reduce low-back pain when the students are in their fifties.

Interestingly, the types of skills that lead kids to want to continue to be physically active, exercising and playing sports, are in the skills-fitness category, not the health-fitness category (although the development of muscle strength goes hand-in-hand with the development of proficient motor skills). One other important point to consider is that growth and development for youngsters is non-linear, which means they may progress, then not progress, then progress again. This is especially true during developmental benchmarks such as growth spurts. Imagine a student who has good flexibility, then his legs grow two inches, he gets tested for flexibility, and his arms don’t quite reach the same mark. Has he lost flexibility? Of course not. So testing should be considered an educational tool that is a snapshot of one particular point in time. Testing cannot be used to predict future superstardom, but should be used to educate students on the value of physical fitness, how physical fitness contributes to increased physical literacy, and how students can improve elements of physical fitness.

Testing for Talent Identification?

What about testing for sports talent identification? Early identification of talent sure sounds promising. Just imagine if vertical jump performance in fifth grade led to an automatic NBA or WNBA contract. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. What if the athlete is early to mature and his or her vertical jump maxes out in ninth grade? What if the athlete gets hurt from overuse in eight grade and burns out, choosing never to play basketball again?

And, going back to fitness testing in schools, the President’s Council tests no longer exist as we remember them (the reasoning is a fantastic article in and of itself). Any reference to skills fitness testing is now supposed to happen after school for those participating in the after-school program. Really? This means we are excluding all kids from reaching their potential by selecting only those athletes participating in the after-school program. This is, of course, contrary to the development of physical literacy for all kids and the tenet of education to provide equal opportunity for all students to gain the knowledge, skill, and attitudes to be physically active for a lifetime. What can be done?

Test for Fun and Adherence

fitness, kids fitness, fitness testing, fun, adherence, talent, movementWe need to engage children and youth in the process, and we certainly don’t need to parade them in front of their classmates to do this. Who better to help develop a meaningful physical fitness program than the kids themselves? It sure beats trying to justify reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease in third graders. A well-designed and implemented physical fitness program that takes into account measuring progress toward physical literacy will have the effect of reducing cardiovascular disease and increasing lifetime physical activity because the kids take ownership of the program, thereby increasing their intrinsic motivation to participate. Likewise, because kids are taking ownership for their physical literacy, they will engage in activities that will improve health-fitness and skills-fitness by incorporating the most important element of youth fitness programming – fun.


1. Stodden, D., & Goodway, J. D., “The Dynamic Association Between Motor Skill Development and Physical Activity.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 78(8), 33-49.

2. Whitehead, M. E., “Physical Literacy: Philosophical considerations in relation to the development of self, universality and propositional knowledge.” Sport Ethics and Philosophy, Vol 1 No. 3, Dec 2007.

Photo 1 by unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo 3 courtesy of CrossFit LA.

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