No dramatic shifts in BMI for overweight teen
girls a year after receiving NYC public school fitness assessment
Teens being classified as
overweight in school fitness reports does not appear to have any impact on
short-term changes in body mass index, finds a new study by New York
University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, the Center for Policy
Research at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public
Affairs, and Columbia University.
The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of
Because dietary and exercise
habits are established in childhood, public health officials have advocated for
early obesity and severe obesity surveillance and prevention. Providing
families with fitness assessments may be beneficial because, surprisingly, many
parents are unaware of their children being overweight or obese. This lack of
awareness becomes a barrier for children achieving healthier weights. Opponents
of these assessments argue that informing children that they are overweight can
be stigmatizing, hurts their self-esteem, or could encourage bullying.
U.S. schools are increasingly
reporting the weight, height, and fitness of students, and sharing the results
with students and their parents. New York City’s public schools adopted a
fitness assessment in 2007-2008 that includes measures for health-related
fitness, as well as students’ body mass index (BMI), a calculation of height
and weight. While the current reports show student BMI as falling within a
“healthy fitness zone” or in a “needs improvement” category, at the time of the
study labels included underweight, healthy weight, overweight, and obese. For
students in a “needs improvement category,” the report includes recommendations
to speak with a health care provider.
“Over one third of New York City
public school students are either overweight or obese. This is troubling
because childhood obesity predicts obesity in adulthood and is strongly
associated with success in school,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, the Daniel Patrick
Moynihan Chair in Public Affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of
Citizenship and Public Affairs and director of the NYU Institute for Education
and Social Policy.
Using administrative data from
the New York City Department of Education, the researchers analyzed 3,692,026
BMI records for public school students from 2007-2012. They focused on the 442,408
female students whose BMI fell close to the overweight designation that was
used during that time period, comparing those just above to those just below
this threshold. This study was confined to high school data, and the study did
not assess whether the reports resulted in parents or teens talking to their
health care provider about the results.
The researchers sought to
understand what effect being designated as overweight or healthy in one year’s
report card would have on the following year’s BMI. Their analyses show that
the overweight label was associated with a small increase in female students’
BMI, particularly among high school seniors and those newly identified as
overweight in last year’s report card.
The researchers caution that the
findings from this study only apply to female public school students near the
overweight cutoff, and do not apply to the overall effect of BMI reporting in
New York City’s schools. In addition, the data used for this study does not
reveal whether the reports were actually received by parents, or whether or to
what extent they were read and processed by the students or the parents. The
analysis was performed on data ending in 2011-12 and there have been
substantial changes to reporting of fitness and BMI since then.
Given the potential value in
school fitness reports, the researchers are continuing to work closely with
school agencies to make them as useful to parents as possible. They are
continuing their research using a randomized control trial study design with a
subset of schools to study the effectiveness of various delivery and/or
In addition to Schwartz, study
authors include Douglas Almond of Columbia University and the National Bureau
of Economic Research and Ajin Lee of Columbia University. The research was
funded by the National Institutes of Health (5 R01 HD070739) and National
Science Foundation (SES-0847329).
About the Maxwell School of Citizenship and
Public Affairs at Syracuse University @MaxwellSU
School of Citizenship and Public Affairs is Syracuse
University’s home for innovative, interdisciplinary teaching and research in
the social sciences, public policy, public administration, and international
relations. It is America’s top-ranked graduate school of public affairs (U.S.
News & World Report), offering highly regarded professional degrees alongside advanced scholarly degrees in the
social sciences; and it is home also to undergraduate
programs across the full spectrum of social sciences.
Maxwell scholars conduct wide-ranging research through nine interdisciplinary centers, each
focused on a topical area within public affairs, such as social and economic
policy, conflict and collaboration, public wellness, aging, energy and
environment, national security, regional studies, and more. For more
information, please visit: http://maxwell.syr.edu/.
About the Institute for Education and Social
The Institute for Education and
Social Policy at NYU conducts non-partisan scientific research about U.S.
education and related social policy issues to help inform educational
institutions and policymakers. The Institute, a part of the Steinhardt School
of Culture, Education, and Human Development, was founded in 1995 as a
partnership between Steinhardt, the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public
Service, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.