Schools need to re-evaluate pros, cons of BMI testing

By Katy Nielsen

The measurement of students’ body mass index continues to be used in schools across the country, despite evidence it may be an outdated system. Recently, BMI was used as one of six tests at Hawthorne Elementary School in Elmhurst, Ill., to determine the overall physical fitness grade on students’ progress reports. The data are typically collected anonymously, but this is clearly not always the case.

The Elmhurst school stopped the practice after parents met with school officials on Jan. 18 to express their concerns about using the data for student grades. There are schools across the United States that continue to grade students based on their height and weight scores. Despite the fact that obesity is on the rise in America—and all across the world—the issue should not be addressed in a school environment.

“The purpose of BMI surveillance in schools is to identify the percentages of students in the population who are obese, overweight, normal weight and underweight,” according to an article in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The index does not take different body compositions into account. Muscle weighs more than fat, so someone who is more muscular and not overweight could register as overweight on a height and weight chart. The most commonly used alternative to the BMI system is body fat percentage, which rates body weight according to how much is composed of fat versus lean tissue, but this is not a universally used test.

Height and weight screenings in schools, especially if they are tied to grades, could significantly contribute to the pressure children already feel to look a certain way. This might worsen stigmas surrounding obese children, increase body image issues and lead to eating disorders. Parents might respond inappropriately to BMI reports by placing their child on a restrictive diet without seeking medical advice, for example.

One argument for using BMI screenings in school is obese students do not have an accurate perception of their body weight; therefore, the screenings point them to concrete statistics, which are supposed to help address their weight problem.

According to studies, BMI testing in schools is ineffectual in preventing obesity. The number of obese children keeps rising, but taking these measurements is not going to fix the problem.

A 2004 study titled “The Association Between Weight Perception and BMI Among High School Students,” found of 2,032 high school students, 26 percent of overweight students considered themselves underweight and another 20 percent thought of themselves as “about the

right weight.”

Obese youth have inaccurate body-image perception. However, there is insufficient proof that once students know their true status, they actually make any significant changes, such as eating healthier and exercising.  Publicly taking people’s weight or grading students based on it would only add to their psychological problems.

If schools decide to continue with BMI measurement programs, the AAP recommends school officials consider whether the program’s anticipated benefits, like preventing obesity and correcting weight misperception, offset expected costs such as psychosocial problems, including eating disorders.

To minimize those negative consequences, the AAP explained, schools should not launch the program unless they have “established a safe and supportive environment for students of all body sizes, are implementing comprehensive strategies to address obesity and have put in place safeguards that address the concerns raised about such programs.”

My problem with this recommendation is school officials cannot know they have created a safe and supportive environment for students. Many young people feel insecure, especially about their bodies. Regardless of what a school tries to do to curb anxiety junior high and high school students feel, that negativity will persist. It is perpetuated by students’ peer groups, what kids see on television, their own insecurities about their bodies and so forth.

Schools are not to blame for obesity in children, though. Weight is a personal, private issue that concerns families and doctors, not teachers. Until further research about its impact is done, BMI testing in schools needs to be stopped and definitely removed from the grading system.