Fitness testing in physical education

Fitness testing has been identified as a contentious pedagogical issue, both in Australia and internationally. Fitness testing involves health and physical education (HPE) teachers using a range of fitness items to measure, record and / or assess their students physical fitness characteristics.

In Victoria and other Australian states, these tests often comprise: beep test / shuttle run (as a measure of cardiovascular endurance), sit-and-reach (as a measure of flexibility), basketball throw (as a measure of upper body power), sit-up test (as a measure of muscular endurance) and weight / height (as a measure of body composition through body mass index). The challenges facing HPE teachers regarding fitness testing are the validity and reliability of these tests, the educative purpose of the testing and how the results will be used.

From a curriculum perspective, there is no imperative to undertake formalised fitness testing which measures, records or assesses an individual’s performance against either a criterion or norm-referenced value. Within the Victorian Curriculum: Movement and Physical Activity strand, there is no explicit mention of fitness testing in any of the content descriptions, content elaborations or achievement standards from Foundation to Year 10.

Schools are asked to provide students with opportunities to participate in and develop the knowledge, skills and understanding of physical activity, and how this contributes to students’ personal development of health-related and skill-related components of fitness.

Further information discussing the links of this topic to the curriculum readers can be found in our previous Tip of the Week HPE entitled ‘Fitness testing or fitness teaching?’

With no explicit rationale from a curricular perspective to undertake fitness testing within physical education, why does this testing continue to be commonplace in contemporary physical education programs? To address this issue, let’s look at some research...

Advocates claim fitness testing can:

  • Promote healthy lifestyles and physical activity
  • Motivate young people to pursue physical activity
  • Enhance cognitive and affective learning
  • Track fitness over time
  • Identify/screen children at risk of fitness related medical conditions
  • Be used as a component of program evaluation and review

Opponents claim fitness testing can:

  • Use invalid and unreliable testing procedures
  • Be ethically unsound
  • Fail to provide any educational value
  • Be counterproductive to the development of physical activity or healthy lifestyles
  • Fail to develop important content knowledge
  • Lack meaning to participants
  • Be demeaning, embarrassing and uncomfortable

Whilst limited exploration has been undertaken on fitness testing children, the research we found highlighted that children generally showed little interest in, or understanding of why fitness testing is performed, with many viewing the process as “painful, negative and one to actively avoid or passively ‘dodge’...” (Hopple and Graham, 1995). The evidence appears to suggest the educational and / or motivational role of fitness testing in schools is highly problematic and questionable.

Examining the research of the pedagogical practices of teachers within the field of fitness testing highlighted teachers do not tend to send fitness testing results home to students or parents, nor do they use the data appropriately with students during class (see Mercier et al, 2016).

To fitness test or not to fitness test?

Research reminds us HPE teachers can make a difference to the health, wellbeing and activity levels of young people. High quality physical education programs have demonstrated a direct impact on student knowledge, fitness and attitudes when appropriate pedagogies are utilised (Cale and Harris, 2005, 2006).

The development of fitness knowledge, competence and confidence is of utmost importance and is an important objective of any HPE program. The Victorian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education highlights the importance of physical activity participation and the development of fitness competence and confidence through content descriptions and content elaborations across the curriculum. Our concern is the way this aspect of the curriculum is currently taught.

ACHPER Victoria supports the approaches advocated by Corbin (2010) and Cale (2016) where fitness education supports students to understand, examine, critique and practise aspects of fitness assessment that leads to learning about physical activity and fitness and development of a healthy lifestyle.

As an example, rather than ask students to undertake a battery of fitness tests, e.g. the beep test or shuttle run, teachers would present the concept of aerobic endurance either discretely (as an individual lesson focus), permeated (through a range of activities) or via a combination of both.

Teachers can ask students to examine aerobic endurance from both performance and participation perspectives. In examining the performance perspective, teachers would highlight that aerobic endurance is specific to a sport, and therefore the most valid interpretations of results come from sport specific tests. Teachers may then present knowledge, skills and understanding around participation where more meaningful or authentic forms of aerobic endurance, such as a timed walk / jog / run is developed and how these concepts can be learned, understood and further developed as part of personal fitness self-assessment and self-management.

This approach would look quite different from the one off, “do the test and move on” approach employed by many schools at the beginning and end of semester or year.

What’s next?

The health and physical education teaching landscape is ever evolving. Cale (2019) asserts PE teachers require updated and ongoing professional learning in the area of fitness testing in physical education. It is suggested this professional learning would focus on the educative aspects of health-related physical fitness and activity, utilising inclusive practices of fitness testing (Alfrey & Gard, 2014).

To ensure teacher’s knowledge, skills and understandings of health-based physical education continually evolve with the times, we recommend teachers participate in professional learning opportunities. ACHPER Victoria provides conferences, workshops, webinars and personalised in-school consultancy services to help you develop and deliver quality HPE programs and teach at the top of your game.

Learn more about fitness testing and health-based physical education

Sign up for elective session F14 ‘What’s in a model? Looking at health-based physical activity approaches to teaching’ on Friday 29 November 2019 at our upcoming ACHPER Victoria State Conference at Monash University. Visit the conference website to learn more and register today.

Click here to learn more about our professional learning suite or contact a member of our PL team for a chat any time.


Alfrey, L., & Gard, M. (2014). A crack where the light gets in: a study of Health and Physical Education teachers' perspectives on fitness testing as a context for learning about health. Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education5(1), 3-18.> 

Cale, L. (2016) Teaching about Active Lifestyles In: C. Ennis (Eds) Routledge Handbook of Physical Education Pedagogies, London, UK: Taylor and Francis

Cale, L. (2019) Physical Education’s journey on a road to health, BERA Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy Invisible College Scholar Lecture.

Cale, L., & Harris, J. (2005). Promoting physical activity within schools. Exercise and young people. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 191-208.

Corbin, C. (2010) Fitness for Life. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Harris, J., & Cale, L. (2006). A review of children’s fitness testing. European Physical Education Review12(2), 201-225.

Hopple, C., & Graham, G. (1995). What Children Think, Feel, and Know about Physical Fitness TestingJournal of teaching in physical education14(4), 408-17.

Mercier, K., Phillips, S., & Silverman, S. (2016). High school physical education teachers' attitudes and use of fitness testsThe High School Journal, 179-190.