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Texas' Struggle to Combat Childhood Obesity Advances, then Retreats

Texas' latest effort to address childhood obesity — a new law allowing a deeper study of student fitness data — could be blunted by the exemption lawmakers gave school districts from having to collect and report the data on a significant number of students.

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Texas children are fat — and getting fatter.

It is something state policy makers have known and have struggled to address for years. In the last decade, the Legislature has passed laws that set nutritional standards for school meals, required body mass index screenings for children and adolescents, and instituted physical activity requirements.

The latest effort came during this year’s legislative session with a bill passed by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, that allows a deeper study of schools’ fitness data.

Under the new law, researchers can access unidentified individual student data, which they say will help bolster aggregate analyses that already show correlations between physical fitness and academic performance, gang activity and absenteeism.

But the new law’s effects may be limited. To help ease the pain of the $4 billion reduction in state financing for public education, and in an attempt to reduce state mandates at the district level, lawmakers exempted school districts from having to collect and report the data on a significant number of students.

“We went forward and we went backwards at the same time,” said Steven Kelder, co-director of the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Austin.

Now, under the mandate-relief package passed this session, instead of testing all students beginning in third grade on cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, flexibility and body composition, so-called Fitnessgrams are required only for students who are already enrolled in physical education classes. That includes all elementary school students, who must take PE under state law, and most middle school students. But in high school, students are required to take only two semesters of physical fitness classes — meaning the elimination of a large data store that researchers like Mr. Kelder wanted to analyze.

Texas students have had to take Fitnessgrams since the 2007-08 school year. During the legislative session, school districts argued that the test imposed a significant burden in technology and employee costs without an accompanying improvement in student health.

JoyLynn Occhiuzzi, a spokeswoman for the Round Rock Independent School District, said her large suburban district north of Austin had spent $105,000 since 2007 in costs associated with the Fitnessgrams. With only students in existing PE classes tested, she said, the district would not have to spend money on the extra personnel needed to administer them.

“If you had an endless source of dollars, of course it’s great data to have,” she said. “But when you don’t have the resources, you really start looking at all of those demands.”

According to a 2009 study from the state comptroller’s office, 20.4 percent of children in Texas are obese — putting the state among the top 10 in the nation. In the United States, nearly 17 percent of 10- to 17-year olds qualify as obese. Texas adults consistently top the charts, too: In 2010, the state ranked 13th in the country in obesity rates in a report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The comptroller’s study estimated that obesity could cost businesses in the state $32.5 billion annually in health care costs by 2030 if current trends held.

School districts are aware of the need for student fitness — and the connection between academic achievement and physical health, said Jackie Lain, the associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards. But she said the costs of implementing the test for all students simply outweighed the benefits.

 “How do you fit in maximum physical activity when trying to maximize scores on tests?” she said. “It’s a constant struggle. There’s too much to get done in a seven hour day.”

Paradoxically, that is just what Mr. Kelder said he hoped the Fitnessgram data could show schools: If they devoted more resources to physical fitness, they could see their academic performance improve.

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