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Sports Participation and Physical Education in American Secondary Schools: Current Levels and Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Disparities

Johnston LD, Delva J and O’Malley PM. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 33(4S): S195-208, 2007. 

Background: The purpose of this study was to determine the current levels of physical education (PE) and sports participation among American secondary school students, and to establish the extent to which they vary by grade level, racial/ethnic background, and socioeconomic status (SES) of the students.

Methods: Nationally representative data were used from over 500 schools and 54,000 students surveyed in 2003, 2004, and 2005 as part of the Youth, Education, and Society (YES) study and the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study. As part of YES, school administrators completed questionnaires on physical activity (including rates of sports and PE participation) of students in their schools. Students in the same schools completed self-administered questionnaires in the same year as part of MTF, providing individual background data, including their gender, racial/ethnic identification, and parents’ education level. Data were analyzed in 2006.

Results: Physical education requirements, and actual student participation rates, decline substantially between 8th and 12th grades. About 87% of 8th graders were in schools that required them to take PE, compared to only 20% of 12th graders. Principals estimate that over 90% of 8th graders actually take PE, compared to 34% of 12th graders. Subgroup differences in PE participation rates were small. Only a fraction of all students participate in varsity sports during the school year, with girls participating only slightly less than boys (33% vs 37%). Participation correlates negatively with SES and was lower among black and Hispanic students than white students, even after controlling for other variables. Participation rates in intramural sports were even lower, declined in higher grades, and were lower among low-SES and Hispanic students (after controlling for other variables).

Conclusions: Physical education is noticeably lacking in American high schools for all groups. Racial/ ethnic minorities and low-SES youth, who are at higher than average risk of being overweight in adolescence, are getting less exercise due to their lower participation in school sports. Disparities in resources available to minorities and lower-SES youth may help explain the differences in participation rates.

Reprinted with permission from American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Journal Article (PDF)

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