Body fat indexes and standardized tests

Bathroom scale

Weights and measures

In a world of high-stakes measures, this one really takes the cake.

Until this week, an elementary school in Elmhurst, Illinois, has been using students’ Body Mass Index (BMI) measurements as part of their physical fitness grades. The BMI is an individual’s body weight divided by the square of his or her height.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the BMI measurement is taken in fourth through 12th grades. It is measured in the fall and again in the spring to see if there has been any improvement. The BMI score is sent home with the students along with their progress report.

In other words, they’re using the BMI as a value-added (or, in this case, poundage added) accountability measure. Very cutting-edge!

But the school was persuaded to stop the practice after serious questions were raised about the BMI test:

  • Results not reliable: One parent complained that her tall, slim son who plays hockey four times a week received a BMI score that indicated he was at risk of obesity.
  • Assessment maker recommendations not followed: The company that designed the health and fitness assessment which uses the BMI recommends against using it as a part of a child’s progress report.
  • Test results misused: “The current research does not support the use of BMI data for grading purposes,” Connie Chester, the school district’s curriculum coordinator, told the Tribune.

According to Wikipedia, the BMI itself has become controversial. Many people, including physicians, have come to rely on its apparent numerical authority for medical diagnosis, but that was never the BMI’s purpose; it is meant to be used as a simple means of classifying sedentary individuals with an average body composition.

In addition, BMI “standards” vary greatly from country to country, making global comparisons problematic. In 1998, the U.S. National Institutes of Health brought U.S. definitions into line with World Health Organization guidelines, which had the effect of redefining approximately 25 million Americans previously considered “healthy” to “overweight.” They further suggest that some Asian standards also need adjustment. In Singapore, the BMI cut-off figures were revised in 2005 with an emphasis on health risks instead of weight. I’m not sure what all of that means, but it clearly threatens America’s global competitiveness.

Now, if we could just get schools and districts to stop using standardized tests — which have ALL THE SAME PROBLEMS — for such high-stakes purposes as student promotion and retention, graduation, and teacher evaluation, we’d really be getting somewhere.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.

Support PURE!
About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.