Fitness evaluation or humiliation? Whether the beep test should still run in Calgary phys-ed

Airdrie student Jillana Nelles says it’s been a yearly occurrence since about Grade 5.

She and her classmates line up on one side of the school gymnasium, waiting for the telltale chimes of the beep test, also known as the 20-metre shuttle run.

To complete the test, students run from one side of the gym to the other, keeping up as the sound of the beeps slowly gets faster. If students can’t make it to the other side of the gym before the beep, generally, they get a warning. Another miss, and they’re out. 

For some, the test is a useful challenge, a way to measure their fitness gains. For Nelles, who’s now in Grade 10, she says when she hears the test is coming up, she gets immediate stress and anxiety. 

“It, in my opinion, pushes kids, including myself, past their limits. And that is an unnecessary way of testing a person’s fitness,” she said.

“It’s definitely a huge stressor as you’re doing it, that you could be judged or you’ll have to stop running.”

The beep test is not a mandated part of Alberta’s K-6 or Grade 7-12 physical education curriculum, so it’s hard to pinpoint just how many schools in Calgary use it. The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) and the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) said it’s up to teachers whether they want to use it as a tool in their classes.

They also choose how to assess the results — that is, whether students get an actual grade or marks for participating.

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CBC Calgary spoke to six current or recently graduated junior and high school students — as well as two parents of current or former students — and all but one said they’d taken the beep test at school within the last few years. 

Some of the students didn’t think it was a useful part of gym class — outside of sports teams or other extracurricular activities. 

Shelly Russell-Mayhew, the director of the body image research lab at the University of Calgary, agrees. She researches building healthy school communities.

“[The beep test] can work entirely against this notion that moving our bodies is something that should give us joy,” she said.

The test has its place with more elite athletes, but since the test is done as a group, it can feel pretty competitive, she said. 

“There’s a whole bunch of reasons why having to do that test in front of your peers is, I don’t think, helping us reach this goal of creating a lifelong love of moving our bodies.”

Student experiences

Jacqueline Klimuk, a Grade 12 student in Calgary, said the beep test acquired a bit of a negative reputation among her classmates.

She said her junior high school ran the beep test once a year in Grade 7, 8 and 9.

“The intention of the test was good,” she said. “[But] as opposed to competing against yourself and your previous records, we were competing against one another. And if someone didn’t do as good, they were almost shamed for it.”

Athletes run the beep test as part of a RBC Training Ground event in St. Catharines, Ont., in 2019. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Other students say they enjoyed the test. Ayushi Choudhary, who’s now in her first year of post-secondary school, ran the beep test each year from Grade 7 to 10 in Calgary. 

Choudhary recalled her class breaking up into groups to run the beep test, as well as other challenging physical activities. They’d take down notes on how well they did, then reflect on their progression when they ran the test again later in the year.

“I think that was a really good format for me, personally. And it also gives it a point as opposed to just being a random test that you do one day where you’re really stressed,” she said.

“We were always graded on your participation, did you put in an effort, and that can look different for different people.”

Abdi Dawe, a recent grad who went to school in Brooks, Alta., agreed. He says he did the beep test a couple times a year in grades 10, 11 and 12.

“I enjoyed it personally, but not everybody [did],” he said. “Being able to do it multiple times, you actually get to see your progress.”

Health tool

For Justin Lang, the beep test is an important tool to monitor the cardiovascular health of kids.

He’s an epidemiologist with the Public Health Agency of Canada and works with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

In 2016, he studied beep test performances from children and youth in 50 different countries.

“There’s other ways to find out that information, but it’s kind of the one test that we were really interested in because it is so strongly related with health,” he said.

“That’s why it’s so important to do and to promote within schools because the better our children in Canada can do on this test, the more healthy they’ll be for the immediate and, hopefully, the long term as well.”

Through their research, they came up with international score standards for children and youth to identify how well they did compared to others.

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Of course, the goal of the test isn’t to make any student feel bad about themselves, Lang said, and no one should be forced to do it. 

But he thinks the standards can help kids gauge their own individual fitness level and help them improve it, instead of treating it as a class race.

Still, for the test to be effective, Jodi Harding-Kuriger, president of the health and physical education council at the Alberta Teachers Association, says students need to understand why it’s being done.

So educating classes around the function of the heart and lungs, explaining what the beep test will measure and how they can use that information in their own lives is essential, she said. Then, follow up by doing the test again to see how things have changed.

“If they understand that it’s their own personal achievement, they’re trying to beat their previous scores, for some, that might be really motivating,” she said.

“If it’s embarrassing or providing a negative experience in PE, then I think it needs to be looked at again and perhaps an alternative activity could be provided.”

Alternative activities

Harding-Kuriger said she still considers the beep test “somewhat archaic,” harkening back to a time when phys-ed was used almost like a “military exercise.” 

She thinks there are other, potentially more meaningful and purposeful, ways to meet fitness outcomes.

Children's feet in a school hallway.
The beep test is not a mandated part of Alberta’s K-6 or Grade 7-12 physical education curriculum, so it’s hard to pinpoint just how many schools in Calgary use it. (Shutterstock/David Fuentes Pri)

Shannon Kell has seen those alternatives in practice. She’s an associate professor at Mount Royal University in the department of education and teaches the phys-ed curriculum to new teachers. She also worked as a gym teacher in Saskatchewan for eight years.

Many teachers may still use the beep test because it’s familiar and an easy activity to implement in class, she said.

But in her opinion, it’s not that fun. And if there’s a segment of students who see it as a stressful, competitive activity, then it makes gym class feel like a vulnerable place.

Of course cardiovascular fitness is important, Kell says, but there are ways to make those lessons more inclusive and about holistic health and wellness, not just physical health.

“Taking your pulse — what is your heart rate, what does this mean and how is it different for everybody?” she said.

“Let’s go for a brisk walk and take our heart rate and use that as a baseline. OK, next time we go for a walk, let’s try to get our heart rate higher. Walking is a really great entry point. Some students might want to run or jog … that’s where they can have some choice.”

Some teachers have also implemented “learning logs” so students can monitor their heart rate while trying different activities or sports. Then, they talk about what’s healthy for their age.

“We’re talking about health and long-term well-being, not necessarily meeting a standard that’s kind of irrelevant,” Kell said.

Nelles, the Airdrie student, said she’d appreciate the choice of a different activity.

“I just want our education system to find something else that’ll not push our students to be as stressed about a physical activity,” she said.

“It should be something you enjoy, it should be something that is beneficial to your health, and not a stressor on your body and mind.”


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