Physical education students at Aurora Central High School do push-ups as part of their Fitnessgram assessment tests last month.

Seventeen-year-old Christian Quintero’s 56 laps of the 20-meter “track” set up in the gym at Aurora Central High School might not qualify him for star athlete status, but it does mean his cardiovascular endurance is approaching the healthy zone for a young man his age.

What’s more, it’s tangible evidence that his weight lifting and running regimen is having an affect. In January, he could only do 43 laps before getting so winded he had to stop.

“I’m walking to school more, too,” said Quintero, who pronounced himself pleased with his performance, and vowed to continue his workouts.

Meanwhile, classmate Jonathan Ruiz’s 36 pushups mark him as having exceptional upper body strength. “It’s the bench press and triceps extensions I’ve been doing,” said Ruiz, 14. In January, he could do only 30.

The boys and their P.E. classmates have tracked their fitness progress using Fitnessgram, a fitness assessment and reporting program for youth developed in Texas nearly 30 years ago, but spreading rapidly through Colorado schools in the past few years. The program uses a variety of fitness tests –  including a 20-meter shuttle run, skin fold test, curl-ups, push-ups and a sit-and-reach test – that assess body composition, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and muscular strength and endurance. Individuals can then compare their scores to age- and gender-weighted standards based on levels of fitness needed for good health.

It looks a lot like the older Presidential Physical Fitness Award Program, which was introduced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and is still around, though today’s it’s called the President’s Challenge. But unlike the Presidential program, which is a competitive assessment that honors students whose fitness scores are in the 85th percentile or better, Fitnessgram participants compete only against themselves.

The computerized software program provides individualized printouts for each student, whether he or she is in the so-called “Healthy Fitness Zone,” and how those scores have changed over time.

It’s one of the most research-based fitness assessments there is,” said Clayton Ellis, Aurora Central’s physical education teacher – and the American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 2010 National High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year.

Aurora Central student Matthew Gordon, 16, does the sit-and-reach test of flexibility in his physical education class under the direction of student teacher Clint Naegel.

Aurora Public Schools adopted Fitnessgram assessment program three years ago when it approved a new physical education curriculum, and the district is committed to assessing and tracking every elementary and middle school student twice yearly, starting in third grade. High school students are assessed four times yearly in their required P.E. classes.

Unfortunately, the district doesn’t yet have the capability to export individual scores from one school to another. So they can’t track a student’s progress all the way through elementary to middle to high school, but Ellis believes it’s just a matter of time before that’s possible.

“Somebody has that data someplace, and our research and assessment department is looking to create a spreadsheet so we could store that data and track at the district level according to a student’s identification number,” he said.

Aurora has the best-established tracking program, but around the state, numerous school districts are moving in that direction, said Terry Jones, senior consultant for health and physical education for the Colorado Department of Education. And most are adopting Fitnessgram, even as fewer and fewer participate in the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge.

“I don’t have an exact number of districts who are doing this, since there’s no state mandate for this, but we’re seeing a definite increase, though it’s not above 50 percent yet,” Jones said. “The problem with the President’s Physical Fitness Award is that it measures students’ ability against the entire country. We don’t want to encourage that. We want to see them improve their individual levels, to help them make goals to increase their own fitness levels rather than compare themselves to everybody else.

“Because competition doesn’t help the students that need the most intervention. If they just see themselves at the low end of the bell curve, they won’t work to improve as much as someone who just wants to make himself healthy.”

Denver Public Schools has been using Fitnessgram in its middle schools for five years, and recently obtained a grant to add the program into all its elementary schools by 2013. It went into the first 29 elementary schools this year, will go into 29 more next year and 30 more the following year.

“The reason we have to phase it in is because the site license is $350 per school, so we want to make sure the money is there to support those schools now using it and those that will be using it,” said Eric Larson, physical education coordinator for DPS.

Larson said he recently met with P.E. teachers who got the Fitnessgram program this year, and it received largely positive comments.

“The one thing they really like is the feedback to the students, and how the students can create their own fitness goals,” he said. “If they’re already in their healthy fitness zone, they’re asking themselves how they can improve. When they look at that printout, and see their scores, it encourages them.

“The President’s Challenge emphasizes students that perform well. The high achievers get those patches. But Fitnessgram is more in tune with students who are overweight, who don’t perform well. There’s still encouragement for those students.”

In the Yampa Valley, Shawn Baumgartner, boys’ PE teacher for Hayden Middle and High Schools, switched to Fitnessgram this month, after years of using the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge. The program was provided through a grant from LiveWell Northwest Colorado.

“We’re excited about this because of the feedback we can give the kids,” said Baumgartner. “It doesn’t say ‘You need to do this to rank at a national level.’ It says ‘Here’s what you need to do to be in a healthy fitness zone, and here’s how we can help you achieve that.’ It lets them enter their own data and they’re learning a life skill for when they leave here. They’re learning to self-monitor.”

Baumgartner expects to have the program implemented for all students in grades 3-12 by next school year.

For more information

Click here to see Fitnessgram standards for boys and girls, ages 5 to 17+.

Click here to see the qualifying standards for the Presidential Challenge.

Watch a video of Aurora Central High School students participating in a variety of Fitnessgram tests.