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2020-10-21 05:12:54

Following China’s recent push to give physical fitness the same weight as academic subjects on standardized exams, netizens and experts alike are concerned with how the country’s sudden interest in quantifying health will affect children with disabilities.

Starting next year, provincial-level regions will begin increasing the point value of physical education on local high school entrance exams until it is weighted equally with academic subjects such as Chinese language, math, and English, according to an announcement Friday from the Ministry of Education.

One province has already fully complied. Last year, Yunnan in China’s southwest increased the physical education portion of its high school entrance exam from 50 points to 100 — the same as core curriculum subjects. Several other provinces have also raised the point value for physical education in recent years, albeit not to the same degree.

Accompanying the broader discussion on the pros and cons of putting greater emphasis on physical fitness is a smaller but still-important debate about what these changes could mean for children with disabilities.

When reached Tuesday, Li Guanghong, a top official with Yunnan’s education bureau, told Sixth Tone that most education officials have yet to settle on the right approach for evaluating the health and fitness of disabled children.

“There isn’t a completely fair way to grade disabled students on the fitness test,” Li told Sixth Tone. “We’re still looking for a balanced way to evaluate students with disabilities or genetic conditions.”

While school fitness pioneer Yunnan may still be undecided on a policy for testing disabled children, many of China’s other provinces have opted to either exempt them from fitness tests entirely, resulting in an automatic perfect score, or give them a set partial score ranging from 50% to 90%, depending on various conditions set by local authorities.

Option 1: full marks by default

Because of the physical and developmental barriers they face, children with disabilities are already at a disadvantage when it comes to fitness testing. In many cases, it’s unrealistic to subject them to the same physical requirements as non-disabled students and expect similar results. As such, some cities have simply decided not to test them at all, giving disabled children perfect scores by default.

Xi’an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi in northwestern China, is one city to implement such a policy. Children with severe disabilities that entail a loss of motor control, for example, are eligible for government-issued disability certificates. Anyone who has such a certificate can get an automatic 60 points — the highest possible score for the city — on the high school entrance exam’s fitness test.

Other cities such as Nanjing, Zhuhai, and Shanghai observe similar policies in cases where a student has no motor function.

However, the “automatic full marks” approach has received backlash from non-disabled people. Under a popular post on Q&A platform Zhihu, users claiming to be students said they found it difficult to accept their disabled peers getting perfect scores automatically.

“There are tons of non-disabled students who work very hard and can’t get even an average score,” read one comment in the discussion. “Students eligible to be exempted should be happy with any score.”

Option 2: arbitrary partial scores

Apart from children with disabilities who completely lose motor function are those with less debilitating conditions that nonetheless hinder their ability to complete physical tasks.

The eastern city of Nanjing, for example, mandates that children with medical reports confirming heart disease, chronic illness, or severe injury resulting from a sudden accident shall receive a score of 90% on the physical fitness part of the high school entrance exam.

In the southern Guangdong province, meanwhile, students with severe disabilities receive a fitness test score equal to the provincial average, while those with milder disabilities may receive partial scores. In light of the pandemic, the provincial capital of Guangzhou announced that students may apply for “coronavirus-related” exemptions to the fitness test and receive the average score.

The policy set by northeastern China’s Liaoning province is less generous. It says children who suffer sudden illnesses or injuries due to “unexpected accidents” can automatically receive 60% of the full score, while those with genetic conditions may be exempted from the long-distance running test, receiving an automatic 50% for that particular task.

In addition to injuries, illnesses, and genetic conditions, students’ regular bodily functions can also get them out of a test — at least temporarily. In many parts of the country, girls who are on their periods when the fitness test is administered may reschedule their evaluation.

An equitable grading system for students with disabilities has long eluded experts. But according to Lü Jidong, head of the physical education department at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, fitness tests should be graded on a pass-fail scale rather than a points system.

“Fitness performance is largely based on genetic factors, and this is why evaluating students with disabilities presents such a dilemma,” Lü told Sixth Tone. “The important thing should be passing the fitness exam, not getting full marks.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Students complete a fitness test as part of the national high school entrance exam in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, May 6, 2014. People Visual)