A report by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association has found that while nearly 75 percent of states require physical education in elementary through high school, over half of states permit students to substitute other activities for their required physical education credit, or otherwise fail to mandate a specific amount of instructional time.
According to the report, only six states — Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York and Vermont — require physical education at every grade level, from K-12. Just over half the country, 26 states, insist on some form of student assessment in physical education; branching off that, twice as many states now require physical education grades to be included in students’ grade point averages compared to 2010, when only 14 did so. Fitness assessments are only required in 27 percent of states.
Among the 33 states that allow students to substitute other activities in order to satisfy the physical education requirement, common allowances include Junior ROTC, interscholastic sports, marching band, cheerleading and community sports. Twenty-eight states permit schools or districts to grant exemptions or waivers for physical education time or credit requirements, though these are not necessarily the same states that allow substitutions. Commonly cited reasons for exemptions include health, physical disability, religious beliefs or early graduation.
There is no federal law that mandates physical education be provided to students in American schools, just as there are no incentives for states or schools to offer such programs. While states define guidelines and establish requirements, implementation is left up to individual school districts.
All but one state — Iowa — have adopted their own state standards for physical education, but according to the report, just 35 states of 46 survey respondents require local districts to comply with these standards.
“It is time to eliminate the ‘loopholes,’” NASPE President Mary Jo Sariscsany said in a statement. “We urge parents to join our efforts to be more proactive and effective advocates for physical education to ensure that their children’s schools and school districts are complying with required state physical education policies.”
In keeping with the physical activity guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NASPE recommends that schools provide 150 minutes per week of instructional physical education for elementary school children, and 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students throughout the school year. Currently, no states adhere to these nationally recommended guidelines at all grade levels.
“The fact that kids are being deprived of physical education in school is unacceptable, especially in a nation suffering from a childhood obesity epidemic,” American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. “Making physical activity a part of the daily routine is critical to saving the next generation of Americans from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other serious problems.”
The report’s findings echo those of a study by University of Georgia kinesiology professor Bryan McCullick earlier this year that found only six states nationwide require the recommended 150 minutes of elementary school-based physical education. While public health reforms have emphasized school-based physical education as a means of combatting the childhood obesity epidemic, the study’s results found that courts typically do not interfere with state legislative decisions concerning curriculum. According to McCullick, a lack of firm requirements reduces the likelihood that schools will adhere to the guidelines.
Additionally, many schools are reducing or eliminating their physical education programs due to budget cuts, combined with a greater emphasis on academic performance.