With the prevalence of obesity among America’s children and adults, most people have become familiar with the health risks associated with carrying the extra weight.
However, two new statistical studies by a Sam Houston State University educational leadership and counseling professor and doctoral student, as well as a clinical dietician consultant, have found a new risk that could potentially be correlated with childhood obesity: poor grades.
“Children’s Weight and Academic Performance in Elementary School: Cause for Concern?” and “Obesity Among Middle School Children: More Cause for Concern?” are the result of statistical analyses of 9,471 students in first through fifth grades and 1,128 sixth and seventh grade students enrolled in an “urban city school district located in the Southwest (Texas) in the 2006-2007 school year.”
Conducted by professor John R. Slate, doctoral student David Clark and Slate’s wife, Gina Viglietti, the research found that across racial lines, students whose body mass indexes place them into the obese category are more likely to do poorly in not only teacher-assigned grading and conduct but state-administered testing as well.
Obese in this instance is when the body mass index is greater than or equal to the 95th percentile when the ratio of height to weight is calculated, according to Slate.
“We wanted to look at the state of Texas scores because when you talk about teacher-assigned grades, it’s more than just academics,” Slate said. “But the state-mandated test should just be academics.
“So we looked at the TAKS scores, and in every case, the students in the obese groups had lower state test scores,” he said. “It matched perfectly what we found with the teacher-assigned grades.”
The differences weren’t as strong for the middle school kids, something Slate partially attributes to a smaller sample size, but there was a connection with academic performance as well.
“You also have puberty occurring, so as your body grows, height-wise, you may be overweight to being obese and then all the sudden your body shoots up and your weight doesn’t have the chance to catch up for a bit,” he said.
The trio looked at obesity rates within different ethnicities, with the same results.
“Asians tend to have, in our study, the lowest obesity percentage,” Slate said. “Hispanics had the highest obesity percentage, followed by African Americans.”
Caucasians, in the study, had the second lowest obesity percentage.
They also compared the grades of students who were underweight, at a healthy weight, at-risk of being overweight and obese.
“As the student weight increased, the academic performance decreased,” he said. “It was a nicely identifiable trend.”
While studies in this area have been conducted nationally that produced similar findings related to academic achievement, Slate said he didn’t “know of any study that’s looked at teacher assigned grades or state-mandated assessments like we did and to find that consistent gap between the obese kids and non-obese kids.
“There haven’t been too many studies looking at this sort of an issue at the elementary school level, particularly by ethnic membership,” he said.
Because these results came from examining the school district’s data, Slate said the puzzling part is what the connection is between obesity and lowered grades.
Viglietti has suggested attendance, as kids in the extreme of the obese group in another study missed more days of school and “absenteeism is clearly linked with achievement,” or other health factors that may make it difficult for the children to concentrate. The data they studied did not indicate learning disabilities in students, so things such as attention deficit disorder were not taken into account.
Those are the kinds of things they would need to gather more information on, he said.
However, gaining access to this type of information is difficult because of the sensitive nature of the records, which is part of the reason for the anonymous nature of the sampled school district.
Aside from the personal consequences of obesity, there are tremendous implications that could accompany this type of study, especially if replicated on a broader scale.
“This is speculation on my part, but to the extent that these differences are real—because it’s a small study—if these academic performances remain lower and your academic success in the 12th grade is built on your 11th grade success and 10th grade success and so on, it has the potential to lower your performance in high school,” he said.
Another implication involves policy, particularly the No Child Left Behind act, which mandates that school districts look at the scores of “at risk” children, including those in special education or who are economically disadvantaged, so that schools are held accountable for every child’s academic performance.
“What we contend is that students who are obese constitute a subgroup,” he said. “If you have a substantial portion of your students being obese and, if this paper’s findings generalize (in other studies), they don’t performs as well academically, then you need to be aware of that as a school district, particularly when you get rated as ‘exemplary,’ ‘recognized,’ ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable.’ If you’re not looking at your obese kids, that might affect the rating that you get.”
Furthermore, it should require the states to rethink any changes made to their physical education policies.
“Schools are faced with enough issues these days, and this, to me, is related somewhat to the No Child Left Behind act that says we’ve got to have reading scores up, writing scores up and math scores up,” he said. “It comes at a cost to physical education because so many school districts are reducing the number of hours or eliminating it because they aren’t held accountable for that.”
Slate said this study shows that the state should look at this issue more in depth, funding grants to gather more data or longitudinal studies that would follow obese students through their academic careers to see if it does affect them in the long run.
“This is an issue we really do need to be concerned about, and maybe it’s just raising a red flag that we need to look into this issue further,” he said.
Slate came to SHSU in August 2007, previously serving as the chair of the educational leadership and counseling department at Texas A&M—Kingsville. His areas of expertise include research design and statistics, and he will be working extensively with SHSU’s doctoral students in various research capacities.