How Should Gym Class Be Graded?

From kindergarten to fifth grade, my daughter has always received the highest mark possible in gym class. You might think she's an athlete. Awesome at sports. Plays on a team. Actually, none of the above. While she rocks at hula-hoop and dance—and likes to swim and bike too—she's not so hot at some of the regular gym activities, like basketball, long jump, or even soccer. I simply assumed that her gym grade reflected her willingness to try, preparation for class, and good behavior. And until a couple of months ago, I thought that her teacher's grading philosophy was the norm.

But in an informal poll of my friends and family, getting a high grade in gym is far from a given. One third-grade cousin told me that she received an unsatisfactory mark in gym on her report card. In her words: "I stink at it." Crazy thing is, I think her motor skills are equal or maybe even better than my daughter's when she was in third grade. The difference is my daughter still likes being active and is enthusiastic to try new activities (she zip-lined for the first time this summer, for instance) while her cousin has started to shy away from physical play.

Still, I was torn about my daughter's "outstanding" grade in gym. Would I want a child who comes prepared for math class, does all her homework, and eagerly participates to receive an "A" even if she got a third of the questions on her tests wrong? No way!  But what's the solution? In combing the web to see how other parents and gym teachers feel, I found a fascinating thread on Edutopia (a website for teachers) about whether PE should be graded at all.

I called the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance for an opinion. The organization didn't have a policy statement on the subject, except that national physical education assessments such as Fitnessgram shouldn't count toward the PE grade in a child's school. But I was referred to Jayne Greenberg, district director of physical education and health literacy in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. Her opinion is clear: "There should be formal grading in physical education, just like there is in other core subjects." In the county's schools, she says, PE is graded on an "A to F" scale based on participation, skill level, and written tests. She doesn't feel that a poor grade is a deterrent, but rather a motivator to do better. "Parents need an honest assessment of their child's abilities—just like they're getting in math and reading—so they know what needs improvement," she says.

Greenberg has a valid point about honest assessments. While I recognized that my daughter's gym grade was sugar-coated, other parents might not realize that gym could be graded, well, on a curve. And I understand concerns that if gym isn't graded, it may seem less important and could jeopardize the amount of time that states mandate for physical education in schools. And of course, we need more gym time for kids—not less! However, I strongly feel that getting a C or D in gym for a 7-year-old is more likely to be a turn-off than a motivator. One British study even found that half of girls are put off of physical activity by their experiences in gym class and school sports.

At the very least, schools and physical education experts need to explore this topic further. In the meantime, I'm leaning toward supporting grade-free PE, as long as a policy is in place to inform parents if there's a concern about a child's motor-skill development and parents receive some type of assessment. For instance, teachers could send home a note twice a year highlighting improvements and new physical-education goals for each child. Here's my reasoning: The overriding purpose of gym class for young kids should be to encourage a life-long zeal for physical activity. Bad grades dampen enthusiasm. Great marks for all muddy the grading system for other subjects. What do you think? Tell me in our poll—and share with your friends.

[polldaddy poll=7322143]

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