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Should District 65 Be Testing Teens' BMI?

Patch columnist Christine Wolf wonders whether middle school students are mature enough to handle the results in a school setting.

An email circulated recently among parents about District 65’s Body Mass Index testing in middle school physical education classes. The writer’s concern was not about the test itself, but about whether kids at this age are emotionally ready to handle such information.

It’s a complicated issue. On one hand, I’m thrilled that kids are learning how to calculate this index and, more importantly, being made aware of this aspect of their overall health. On the other hand, I too am concerned whether kids can handle this information in a mature way, and also wonder what the kids are expected to do with this knowledge moving forward.

As a District 65 parent, I wasn’t aware the BMI testing was being done. Granted, I can’t possibly know everything the teachers teach, so why does this topic strike such a chord with many of us?

I’ll sum it up in two ways: 

  1. Middle school and
  2. Weight

Middle School

Except for those with a psyche of steel, the middle school years can be a daunting time of life. You want to fit in, but everyone’s hormones, bodies, moods and friends remain in a constant state of flux. Though eye-rolling is common, more often middle schoolers steal sideways glances at their peers. Consider these hypothetical locker room conversations after the BMI testing:

“Did your class do the BMI thing?”

“What’d you get?

“I saw Jane’s face when she figured out hers.”

“Mine is SO low!”

“I’m never eating again.”

“Alex said Scott’s was the highest, but I don’t believe it. I bet Jordan’s is higher.”

“I don’t get it. Just look at how skinny she is…”

Then consider these hypothetical internal conversations in the mind of a middle schooler:

“I can’t believe my body fat’s that high (or that low). I’m not normal.”

“I’m never eating again.”

“That was mortifying.”

“Everyone’s talking about me.”

“I’m a failure.”

“It says it right there on the paper. I’m too fat.”

“This proves exactly what I thought.”

While these may be extreme examples, the fact remains: these kids are 11, 12, and 13 years old. They’re self-conscious and self-absorbed. They ruminate and spiral over issues that may or may not be rational. Are they ready for this information?

Weight

Let me get this straight: as a parent, I’m informed by the district when my child has vision and hearing screenings, when dental checkups are available and when my child’s been exposed to the streptococcal virus or head lice…but I’m not informed that my child’s weight’s been measured and that she’s armed with Body Mass Index information? I’m grateful for all of these services – don’t get me wrong – but I have a right to know the results, too.

Childhood obesity is no doubt an epidemic in our country, and the more empowered kids are about health and nutrition, the better.  I think it’s important to inform kids about the choices and consequences connected with eating and exercising. I just hope the process isn’t one in which kids are made to feel judged or stressed about an issue that is fraught with emotion—even for adults.

After word got out about the BMI testing via one concerned parent’s e-mail, Supt. Hardy Murphy sent a follow-up email to district families explaining the process, which included the following statement from Denise Rossa, Middle School Physical Education Department Chair:

At District 65, the Physical Education department has the focus of helping our students become or continue to be healthy. We use a widely utilized and well respected software testing program called “FITNESSGRAM” from Human Kinetics [click here for the FITNESSGRAM WEBSITE]. All tests assess students in the 5 health-related fitness components; Cardiovascular Fitness, Muscular Strength, Muscular Endurance, Flexibility and Body Composition to provide a more well rounded picture of a student's physical fitness. All 5 components are crucial to an individual’s health and we believe health awareness starts much sooner than adulthood. We also believe in educating students on the importance of being in the “Healthy Fitness Zone” of all the tests and how to get to that zone if not already there...

FITNESSGRAM recognizes that physically fit and less-fit people come in all shapes and sizes. The beginning level of the FITNESSGRAM Healthy Fitness Zone for body composition is based on research that links these levels to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. The FITNESSGRAM parent and student reports use carefully worded terminology to help parents and youth understand possible risks associated with higher levels of body fatness. Language that could be used to describe physical appearance is not used in the FITNESSGRAM reports...

The FITNESSGRAM report provides information to help you (and your child) interpret body composition scores...The use of health-related criteria helps to minimize comparisons between children and to emphasize personal fitness for health rather than goals based solely on performance. Since only modest amounts of exercise are needed for obtaining health benefits, most students who participate in physical activity almost every day will be able to achieve a score that will place them in the Healthy Fitness Zone.

I wish the letter had also included this link to the Human Kinetics website addressing parents’ frequently asked questions.

I appreciated the superintendent’s response to the concerned parent’s email, though I wonder how and when I’ll receive results of the testing.

 

jim October 22, 2012 at 12:44 PM
BMI testing of students is a BAD IDEA . Will lead to more problems among students.. BULLYING. Students have a pretty good idea when they are overweight.
Michele S. Hays October 22, 2012 at 01:02 PM
Here is what the CDC has to say about BMI testing in schools: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/bmi/pdf/BMI_execsumm.pdf I think this program is well-intentioned, and I like a lot about it, especially the way it is presented - unfortunately, I don't think there is a way to ensure students' privacy of this measure in a school setting. Kids talk. BMI is part of the screenings in the doctor's physicals required throughout students' tenure at D65, and can be discussed with parents at the doctor's office. It could be explained to kids that this is a matter to discuss with their doctor, rather than something to do in school. Teachers can demonstrate how to perform the measure without actually measuring anyone.
Jim October 22, 2012 at 02:23 PM
Oh c'mon now. Let's go to liberal standards and do aids testing, pregnancy testing, a rectal exam for hemorrhoids and a psyciatric examination. Can't be too diligent in imposing our ideology on our young citizens. I know it sounds rediculous but how about teaching them about all things in moderation, morality, hard work and personal responsibility. Nah, too difficult for the schools and parents. Better stick with the BMI.
E. October 22, 2012 at 03:52 PM
As a previous commenter noted, the BMI is already part of a pediatric physical exam. Physical exams are required for school aged kids, & a doctor's office is a much better place to discuss such personal & health-related matters w/ privacy, parental involvement, & more complete information about other potentially relevant health issues. It might be ok to offer in-school BMI testing for parents who choose to opt in (like dental screenings), but it should NOT be the norm or a requirement. It's redundant, intrusive, & potentially humiliating, especially to overweight kids. Their doctors already tell them their BMI! When I was in school, P.E. classes required kids to stand in a gym in their underwear & be photographed in front of all the same-sex teachers & students for a "posture" evaluation. It was very embarrassing, but everyone felt they had to go along. Even decades later, a host of alumni have posted on the alumni website how humiliating & unnecessary that was. The people who dictate these sweeping policies really have no idea what a negative & long-lasting emotional impact these experiences can have. Teachers have no right to this private medical info, & even if they try to keep it private from peers, I really don't trust that they'll be adequately discreet. And kids will pressure one another to disclose. This is ripe territory for making kids feel self-conscious and ashamed, it's intrusive, and IT'S REDUNDANT WITH WHAT KIDS ALREADY GET AT THE DOCTOR. What's the point?
Lightsleeper October 22, 2012 at 03:56 PM
If schools implement BMI testing on children, their peers could figure out that fat kids are fat. Think of the social ramifications of this unprecedented piece of information.
Christine Wolf October 22, 2012 at 06:23 PM
A non-Evanston resident posted to my Facebook page: "I just combed over the district 65 website and their PE and health pages, along w/the link to the state standards for PE. It doesn't explicity state that they will evaluate the students' bmi scores and share the info w/them, but there is a link to the fitnessgram site. http://www.district65.net/FV1-00018790/FV1-000187A8/FV1-0001A78E/S0076ACBA-0076AD92 I found a copy of the letter that district 60 sends home to parents, but was unable to find one from district 65. http://schools.wps60.org/whs/images/stories/whs_pdf/FitnessgramParentLetter.pdf If they utilized fitnessgram as stated in your article, they should be sending home a written report to the parents at some point ie with report cards or once per semester. It would have been nice if your district had sent a letter like the one from district 60 and much of this controversy and confusion might have been eliminated. They may very well have done so, but I couldn't find anything explicitly stated anywhere in my brief search." It's a complicated issue. I think it's great the school wants to get the info to kids as early as possible, but parents should know before and after testing is conducted. Was anyone tested for scoliosis in grade school like I was? Somewhat traumatizing for many of us. At least my parents were able to talk to us beforehand. And yes, pediatricians do BMI testing, but not all kids go to pediatricians (or can afford it). What does the school board think?
MVP October 22, 2012 at 07:44 PM
BMI testing in middle school is a terrible idea. If a teacher or school nurse has a concern about particular individuals their familiies can be contacted, advised and possibly referred to an appropriate physical/program. Adding an official "fat" or "skinny" label to all the middle school angst cannot possibly have a positive effect. How about they bring back actual gym class! The kids spend so much time doing written and computer work as part of their physical education curriculum, seems the time for actual physical activity has been greatly reduced. Bring back gym class to what it's meant to be: a chance to get a physical and mental break during the school day. Written assignments and exams in physical education? Seriously??
jim October 22, 2012 at 10:39 PM
Parents can figure it out for themselves. Just google BMI it tell you how. Let parents do it.
annie October 23, 2012 at 12:11 AM
I say its time to drop the practice of checking BMI at school, and they can drop the free eye exams too. I remember hearing tests in school, do they still do that?
Michele S. Hays October 23, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Christine, the BMI test is part of the required physical exam that is required for students when they receive immunizations http://www.district65.net/departments/Healthservices/requirements. It is specifically included on the immunization form required by the State of Illinois: http://www.idph.state.il.us/health/vaccine/child_hlth_forms/Child_Hlth_Exam_Cert.pdf ALL D65 students, regardless of their income level, have access to this information from a physician or medical professional.
Christine Wolf October 23, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Michele, yes, the state includes BMI testing on the required health forms which students are required to turn in to the school district, but I don't necessarily think kids should be weighed in middle school in front of their peers by non-medical personnel. I'm all for giving kids the tools to figure the numbers out at home (or with a professional), but not in a gymnasium or a locker room surrounded by other students.
Michele S. Hays October 23, 2012 at 07:53 PM
That's what I meant when I posted. Since the BMI information is already being collected for all students in D65 in a medical setting - as is appropriate, I don't see any benefit to measuring it in school. There are other health screenings such as vision and hearing that take place in school as a private, pull-out occurrence, but in my experience the results aren't shared with the students - they go home to the parents.
Concerned parent October 25, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Especially not now, when a female PE teacher at Rhodes is being investigated by DCFS for inappropriate touching of a student!
Evanston Resident October 28, 2012 at 12:24 AM
A friend of mine became anorexic when she was young. She recovered very well and later went to much success. She traced the origin of the problem back to a test like this in school - and it turned out that several other girls who participated in that test had similar problems. An adult in an official position telling impressionable young people that they are officially "fat" can have very serious consequences.
Lisa Edwards October 31, 2012 at 03:56 PM
agree
Lisa Edwards October 31, 2012 at 04:11 PM
The district should NOT do this, unless: what? Are they going to pay for a personal dietician and fitness training for each student they deem is overweight? A parent can physically see pudginess. And above this, middle school is indeed the time when the kids are vulnerable to how they look, whether or not they are like the majority of their friends, etc, etc. Let this be and remain a family affair.

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