Experts are learning that there may be a correlation between students' grades and their health.

December 2011

After reading reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggest healthier students tend to be better learners, administrators inside Colorado Springs School District 11 grew curious: Was there a correlation between student fitness and Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores? To find out, teachers and researchers in the district gathered anonymous data about top performers on the Fitnessgram, a measurement of student strength, flexibility, and aerobic capacity, and compared those data with the same students’ performance on the CSAP.

“Almost across the board, there was an indication that students who scored high on the Fitnessgram had higher test scores,” explains Jessica Sharp, director of grants for the school district. The converse was also true, she adds. Kids who didn’t perform well on the Fitnessgram were ranked as only partially proficient—or less—on the CSAP.

While the district’s informal research doesn’t suggest that poor health and low levels of fitness cause poor academic performance, it does suggest a strong correlation between the two, and indicates that improving student health, particularly among low-income populations, might be a key factor in closing the achievement gap in public schools.

This idea—that student health and academic performance are inextricably linked—is gaining traction nationally. Studies coming out of places like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Columbia University repeatedly show that physical activity and better nutrition can have a positive impact on a student’s cognitive abilities, classroom behavior, and overall learning. As a result, sweeping change is taking place in schools across the nation as well as here in Colorado, where numerous integrative efforts are underway to teach kids about nutrition, improve their access to healthy food, and increase their levels of physical activity each week.

But bumping up grades and test scores is only one of the motivations behind these efforts, explains Chris Lindley, director of the Prevention Services Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The fact is that student health has been rapidly declining in Colorado for years. In 2003, Colorado was one of only three states where less than 10 percent of children were overweight or obese. Just four years later, that number had skyrocketed to 27.2 percent and Colorado had fallen to 23rd place. Turn the page for a sampling of Colorado’s efforts to reverse that trend.