In Chicago, the surprising reasons so many students fail P.E.

Back in eighth grade, Jennifer Nava used to love physical education.

“It is super fun and you feel safe and comfortable participating,” said Nava, now a junior at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago’s Brighton Park.

But when she started ninth grade, that changed dramatically. “In high school, you don’t want to put effort into it and embarrass yourself,” she said.

Even so, Nava figured out how to pass P.E. But not all her classmates managed to do the same.

Surprising new research shows around one in 10 Chicago students fail P.E. — a higher rate than math, English, or any other class. Yet nearly everyone passes gym in eighth grade.

The failures matter because experts say they could portend eventual failure in high school and beyond.

So why does P.E. suddenly become so challenging in ninth grade?

For one thing, the course changes significantly. In middle school, students may have gym class once a week and don’t have to change clothes. In high school, freshman have gym every day, must bring and change into exercise clothing, and also have to take a health and reproduction class.

Students like Nava say those changes, compounded by adolescent self-consciousness heightened by having to take their clothes off in a crowded locker room and to shed sweaty clothing and rush to the next class, felt like too much.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s Hidden Risk report analyzes Chicago Public Schools student grades across a range of subjects from eighth to ninth grade. It found that some of the sharpest drops in GPA came in non-core subjects such as P.E. and art.

One Chicago P.E. teacher, Carly Zwiazek, said that, on any given day, she may see up to 200 students, or 40 to 45 students in each of her classes at Curie Metro High School in Archer Heights. Teaching such large classes makes following up on no-show or lagging students is challenging, she said.

She said she fails students who skip class, but not necessarily those who refuse to change into gym clothes. “That is only part of your grade for the day,” she said. “The lesson is to engage based on your skill level.”

She sees P.E. as a lab to learn to manage mundane but important demands of life as adults. “I simply connect it with the real world,” Zwiazek said. “You’ll have to wear the appropriate stuff to work, work with people you normally don’t like to work with.”

But she struggles to convince students, as she battles social attitudes that devalue exercise and gym. “The classes aren’t taken seriously. They are looked at as electives,” she said. “But if they are a high school graduation requirement they should be held to the same level of importance.”

The freshman year conundrum

The transition from eighth to ninth grade is tough, and that isn’t a new phenomenon. No matter how well they did in middle school, nearly all Chicago students see their grades fall when they start high school.

That difficulty surfaces at a critical time: Some education researchers have called ninth grade the most important year in high school.

The Chicago district uses a metric called “freshman on-track” to judge whether students are making enough progress to position them to graduate on time. This year, the district hit its highest measure for freshmen on track yet, at 89.4 percent.

But that figure doesn’t take into account non-core classes like P.E.

What struck researchers was the sharp rise in failure rates in subjects such as P.E. that, only the year before, most students were passing.

In Chicago, hardly any eighth-graders fail P.E., said Jenny Nagaoka, the Consortium on School Research’s deputy director. But in ninth grade, almost 10 percent fail, the research found.

That was the biggest drop in grades for any subject, with an average drop of 0.81 point from middle to high school. The drop was particularly sharp for black boys, whose grades in P.E. dropped one full point, and for students who were already at high risk of dropping out of high school.

The figures are important not only as indicators, but because non-core subjects make up one-third of many students’ grade-point averages.

“If you fail P.E., your probability of graduating is a little bit lower than if you failed just algebra, or just English, or just biology,” said Nagaoka. “We tend to discount less academic classes, but they are as predictive of graduation as core subjects.”

A sharp learning curve

Why are so many students failing or struggling in P.E.? Former and current Chicago students say it’s because P.E. in high school runs into a perfect storm of students’ body insecurities, the logistical difficulties of changing clothing during the school day, and the struggle of juggling classes in a demanding new environment.

P.E. and health class are mandatory in ninth and 10th grades.

Veronica Rodriguez, who graduated from Back of the Yards High School last spring, said many girls in her classes would go into bathroom stalls to change instead of in the locker room. It took them more time, she said, but made them feel more comfortable.

Rodriguez said changing and participating are particularly difficult for girls.  Students who wouldn’t swim during their menstrual periods would earn penalties from teachers.

“They would add a lot of pressure and shame students who wouldn’t want to participate in activities,” said Rodriguez, now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about her teachers.

P.E.’s focus on following rules might explain the high number of black and Latino male students struggling in gym. The Hidden Risks report notes that grades in gym are often based on judging compliance and discipline, areas in which research shows that educators more harshly judge male students of color.  

Nava said she would like to see gym teachers be more understanding of teenagers, especially those dealing with their first years of menstruation.

“When a period hits, it’s really embarrassing to have to wear shorts,” she said. “If they don’t feel comfortable playing basketball on their period you shouldn’t threaten them.”

She also said some of the reasons given for changing clothing in P.E. — so that students don’t get sweaty — are less important in schools where temperatures fluctuate. Many neighborhood Chicago schools fail to control building temperatures. At Kelly, Nava said, students roast in classrooms in both summer and winter. Changing for gym, she said, “is not making a difference.”

Instead, Nava said she would tell her gym teacher that she forget her gym clothes and join students standing along the wall instead of running laps or playing basketball. Then, one week a month, she would be sure to bring her gym clothes every day so her grade didn’t drop.

And when it was time to go to another class from gym and she was running late, Nava would prioritize arriving on time. “If I have to pick between my AP psychology class and P.E., I’m taking my AP psychology.”

Focus on the transition

Over the past decade, the district has tried to smooth the transition for entering ninth-graders, in part by focusing on young people who were at risk of dropping out and by zeroing in on students struggling in their core subjects.

The Hidden Risks report, school officials acknowledge, shows a lingering, clear gap.

The district must pay more attention to student performance in non-core classes, Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, told Chalkbeat. “I can see this influencing practice at the school level,” Jackson said. “There is the next edge of growth, and this data has really pointed that out.”

One model might come from North-Grand High School, which emphasizes the importance of P.E. from freshman orientation, when new students learn they need P.E. and health credits to graduate. P.E. teachers spell out expectations in detail, Principal Emily Feltes said.

“We talk about what to do if you miss a day,” she said. “Even things like, ‘You will have a locker in the locker room, let’s practice putting our stuff in there.’”

The school also includes P.E. teachers in conversations with English and math teachers about student development and how to help a student’s performance.

“I think it has been helpful for us to have them involved in professional learning communities,” Feltes said.

At Sullivan High School, Principal Chad Adams regards the nearly 10 percent P.E. failure rate as “kind of alarming.”

Sullivan folds electives into the literacy department, in an effort to integrate them with the academic instruction all students receive. “We look at standards being taught in English and social science, and try to find standards we can also teach in elective classes,” Adams said.

To fully track how non-core classes like art and P.E. affect student achievement, the Hidden Risk report suggests expanding the definition of the “freshman on-track” metric to consider failure in non-core classes as a warning sign.  

The report also suggests that, in light of the large number of black and Latino male students struggling in P.E., educators review how they’re grading, to correct for teacher bias about compliance and discipline.

Jennifer Nava has another suggestion. She said she’d like to see schools find a more thoughtful way to balance P.E. requirements with the comfort of teenagers in the difficult first year of high school.

“Students have to pick between their own comfort and grades,” she said.