PFT: Physical Fitness Test or Pretty Flawed Test?


Illustration by Hannah Cosselmon

The issue of body shaming recently was brought to the public’s attention during and after the first presidential debate when the world was reminded that Donald Trump had called Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe winner who gained weight, “Ms. Piggy.”

We see body shaming all around us: from the glossy ads in magazines telling people how to lose weight to achieve their “ideal” body, to remarks made by one of our presidential candidates, to our own Physical Education classes, where students’ body types and physical limits are often on display.

One Lowell senior, who requested not to have her name used, was held to a different standard in her PE classes because of her body type. She ran the mile component of the Physical Fitness Test in less than eight minutes and thirty seconds but didn’t pass, even though her friends did while running it in the same amount of time or slower. “I ran harder than I ever have before,” she said, “I was trying so hard to pass.”


So how is this possible? And how is this related to body shaming?

The PFT is a California state-mandated assessment, designed to evaluate fitness and identify people who need physical improvement in order to be healthy. Pass five of the six components and you can graduate from Lowell with only two years of PE under your belt.

Pushups and curl-ups test strength.

Trunk-lift and sit-and-reach test flexibility.

Body Mass Index (BMI) tests body composition.

VO2max tests aerobic capacity through a calculation involving BMI and mile time.

Fail more than one of these components, and you are told by the PE department that you must continue taking PE as a junior in one of the six elective classes that the department offers. However, there is a form generated through the counseling office that may exempt you from taking a third year of PE if you fail more than one of the six components and meet other conditions.

The problem is that the BMI and the VO2max lack accuracy and fairness.


BMI is a calculation of someone’s height compared to his or her weight. It turns people into easily-analyzed numbers and is designed to give students a general idea of whether or not they’re in the “healthy zone” for their weight and age.

“It’s held against you if you’re overweight.”

A study by the University of Pennsylvania in 2013 showed that, because the only variables that go into BMI calculations are height and weight, important information about people’s body composition is not taken into account, such as bone size and density, how much of the weight is muscle mass versus fat or where the fat is located, making BMI often inaccurate.

While the parameters for passing or failing BMI are relatively wide, it is a factor that determines how easily a student can pass the VO2max test. Under the current design, the higher an individual’s BMI, the faster he or she has to run the mile in order to pass the VO2max test.

If you have a higher BMI, you’re more likely to fail the VO2max. Of the 137 freshmen who failed the PFT in 2015, 60 percent failed both the BMI and VO2max, according to the Lowell PE department’s data. This does not necessarily mean that people who failed the BMI are unhealthy or bad runners. Like the senior, many could have failed because they were simply not allowed very much time to run the mile in comparison to their classmates with lower BMIs.

Because healthy people may end up with BMIs on the higher end of the spectrum and the BMI also contributes to body shaming, the test’s downsides outweigh its benefits. Therefore, the BMI and VO2max components of the test should be seriously modified or even removed.

The BMI is not a completely accurate test, and can cause unnecessary stress for students, according to PE teacher Thomas Geren.

This was true for sophomore Dolores Davidson. She is in the Visual Performing Arts advanced dance class at Lowell, and dances four to five times a week at Dance Mission. Yet her BMI test at Lowell classified her as “needs improvement,” otherwise known as overweight. Because of her higher BMI, she would have had to run the mile in under seven minutes and fifteen seconds to pass the VO2max component of the PFT. She did not meet this standard and failed the test, while many of her classmates with lower BMIs ran the mile in the same or more amount of time as she did and passed. She was so stressed about having to take PE as a junior next year that she even went as far as asking her UC San Francisco doctor how she could lose weight. Her doctor told her that, according to their charts, her BMI was perfectly normal for her age. She also talked to a nutritionist who said that there was nothing unhealthy about her diet.

Lowell PE department head Michael Prutz explained that while he believes that the VO2max is good for determining which individuals need improvement and which may develop physical problems later in life, it’s not a perfect system. “It’s held against you if you’re overweight,” he said.

While Davidson had to run the mile in seven minutes and fifteen seconds, junior Scout Mucher, who is naturally slim, was allotted more than twice that amount of time. “I probably could have walked most of the way, if not all of the way,” Mucher said.

When students see their peers with lower BMIs being allowed more time to run the mile, it contributes to the common mentality that being skinnier is ideal, which can decrease self-esteem. Eighty-five percent of adolescents report seeing classmates teased because of their weight in gym class, according to a recent study in a journal by the American School Health Association. “I already compared myself to my friends,” Davidson said. “I had insecurities about how I looked, and to see people get more time to run because they were skinnier sort of legitimized these feelings that I was already having. Suddenly it wasn’t just in my head, it was something that society cared about and that school cared about.”

It contributes to the common mentality that being skinnier is ideal, which can decrease self-esteem.

One alternative to the BMI for testing body composition is the skinfold test listed by Fitnessgram. This test uses calipers to take measurements of the thickness of skin on people’s triceps and calves in order to assess fat content. This is a more accurate assessment of body composition than the BMI because it focuses solely on the physical aspect of body fat percentage, according to the California Department of Education. It can also be less embarrassing for students to get their skinfold measurements taken than to stand on a scale in front of their classmates to be weighed by their teacher.

But even if students, like Davidson, fail the PFT, they do not have to take a third year of PE as there is an exemption — a form that allows juniors and seniors to get out of taking the course again as long as they are 16 years or older and have completed two years of PE. We emailed all of the PE teachers to ask if they inform their students about this exemption. Prutz responded on behalf of the department: “We do not PROMOTE exemptions and believe students that do not pass the fitness test should continue to take Physical Education as a response to identifying those components of health and fitness that require attention.” When we asked the counselors how many people total requested to be exempt from PE for the 2016–2017 school year, they said only four. This is because many people simply don’t know that there is an exemption. When asked about the form, Davidson replied “What exemption?”

However, not everyone can qualify for the exemption. For example, the Lowell senior mentioned above failed the BMI and the VO2max both years, but she had to sign up for a third year of PE because she didn’t turn 16 until one week into her junior year. She had to drop Advanced Placement Psychology, a class that she was excited to take, in order to fit PE into her schedule. And while she was able to get an exemption after her birthday, it was too late to add the already full AP Psych course. This is one example of how a third year of PE, even with the current exemption available, can be inconvenient for people who want to fit courses that are required or that they’re passionate about.

PE teachers need to begin effectively informing their students about the exemption. In addition, the form itself should not take into account the student’s age, but solely the number of years they’ve taken PE since many students don’t turn 16 until it is too late to add or drop classes.

Students who know they are unhealthy or just want to continue being active could choose to enroll in one of the PE electives that the department offers, such as basketball, soccer, yoga and racket sports. Students, like Davidson, who are already healthy and active outside of their PE classes, could opt out of a third year if they want to pursue other interests. What matters most is that students are informed enough to make a decision. After all, we should be teaching students how to live healthy lives instead of making them take a test that promotes the media’s unrealistic expectations.