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Sixth grade Students of Physical Education teacher Sharon Burack practice touch football during PE at Liincoln Middle School on Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Kids attending local schools boosted their scores in the latest statewide physical fitness test, though fewer than half passed all six portions of the test, according to results released this week by the California Department of Education.

Known as FITNESSGRAM, the test gauges students’ abilities in six athletic areas including aerobic capacity, upper body strength and flexibility. Since 1996, the state’s board of education has required California’s fifth, seventh and ninth graders to take the test annually.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District students in all three grades posted better scores during the 2008-2009 school year compared with scores from the previous year.

The results released Monday showed 47.7 percent of SMMUSD fifth graders were in the “healthy fitness zone” in all six areas, compared with 42.9 percent last year. In the seventh grade, 37.8 percent of students passed all parts of the test compared with 34.7 percent the year before and 49.3 percent of ninth graders passed all sections of the test, up from 41 percent.

Compared with statewide figures, a greater percentage of SMMUSD students scored well on the test. Just 29.1 percent of the state’s fifth graders, 34.1 percent of seventh graders and 37.9 percent of ninth graders passed all portions of the test last year.

“I don’t think there’s any cause for joy in the fact that we’re better than the state,” said Patricia Nolan, who chairs SMMUSD’s advisory committee on health and safety, though she added, “It’s encouraging that in most of the categories there’s been improvement.”

Ben Allen, a school board member, agreed that while the progress is a good sign, the fact that nearly two-thirds of the district’s seventh graders failed in at least one area underscored the need for improvement.

“These scores are still unacceptably low,” he said.

Allen said he hoped community interest in improving the district’s fitness performance would lead to more parent participation on the district’s health and safety advisory committee, which has had long-standing vacancies.

Dona Richwine, the district’s nutrition specialist, said a wellness policy that’s been in place since 2007 has helped improve students’ on-campus eating habits and could have contributed to the district’s improved fitness results. One focus of the new policy was to eliminate sugary drinks and snacks from district campuses.

“There’s no sodas anywhere, there’s no candy being sold and so on,” she said.

Teachers and students have also been encouraged to cut back on junk food that used to find its way into the classroom on special occasions. Valentine’s Day cupcakes have largely been replaced by strawberries, she said.

“In general the climate in the district since 2007 has really been moving in a really positive direction in terms of what’s being served on campus during the school day,” she said.

At Santa Monica High School, Norm Lacy, the school’s athletic director and physical education department chair, said since last year he’s required PE classes to implement more running as a way to better prepare students for FITNESSGRAM’s most strenuous test — the mile run.

Though students statewide also improved their performance on the fitness test, response to the results from state education officials was measured.

“We could certainly say it’s incremental growth and we have some way to go,” said Diane Hernandez, who oversees the fitness test for the state.

She noted the latest results mark modest fitness gains, with ninth graders posting the biggest year-over-year gain in scores at just 2.3 percentage points.

Even that gain, she said, could have been caused by a newly created incentive rather than by true improvements in physical fitness. Since 2007, ninth grade students who pass the state test in five out of six categories are eligible to become exempt from two years of physical education classes they’d otherwise be required to take, she said.