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Few State Physical Education Mandates Meet Recommended Guidelines

Of the 41 states that require physical education at the elementary school level, only six meet the recommended guidelines from the National Association of Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), according to a new study from the Journal of Teaching in Physical Education.

The picture gets even bleaker as students get older.

Only two of the 37 states with mandates for middle school P.E. meet NASPE's recommended 225 minutes per week, the study found. By high school, none of the 41 state statutes meets the 225-minute-per-week recommendation.

Since the federal government hasn't instituted a national law governing how much P.E. schools must provide (the feds are barred from legislating curricula), study author Bryan McCullick, a kinesiology professor at the University of Georgia, reviewed all 50 states' current P.E. mandates.

He did so based on a two-part premise: If it's accepted that P.E. teaches students how to lead a healthy lifestyle, it should be legislatively mandated. If mandated, P.E. should be assigned an appropriate amount of time "needed to elicit the achievement of its intended outcomes," he writes.

Currently, NASPE recommends at least 150 minutes per week of school-based P.E. for elementary students and 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students.

Of the 41 states with high school P.E. mandates, New Jersey came closest to meeting NASPE's recommendations, falling short by 37.5 minutes per week.

Well and Good

McCullick notes in the study that a majority of these state statutes were written with "nocuous ambiguity," which allow different interpretations from individual readers. A majority of the laws fail to specify how much P.E. time schools should offer and contain uncertain language.

The study claims that a majority of state statutes were written in a way "that did not explicitly mandate" P.E. in schools; instead, they simply recommend or suggest it. This ambiguity could prevent courts from helping concerned students or parents interpret a state's statute, McCullick suggests.

"The first step to ensuring children have a healthy level of school-based physical education is to ensure that states have mandates regarding quality physical education with clear requirements," McCullick said in a statement. "Then, we need to implement a surveillance system to ensure schools adhere to the mandate. Until those are in place, we can't fairly determine the benefits of school-based PE."

This study isn't the first time that an organization has found school-based P.E. requirements to fall short. NASPE suggested the exact same thing in both its 2006 and 2010 Shape of the Nation report.

That finding shouldn't diminish the importance of state P.E. mandates, however. Elementary schools in states or districts with P.E. mandates are more likely to offer students the recommended 150 minutes of P.E. per week, according to a study published last December in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Schools in states or districts with such mandates were more than twice as likely to offer the recommended level of P.E., according to the study.

"We found that mandates for both physical education and recess are needed to help elementary school students meet the national recommendations for physical activity," said that study's lead researcher, Sandy J. Slater, in a statement.

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