Napfa: From fitness test to education tool

SINGAPORE - The recent announcement by the Ministry of Education (MOE) regarding changes in fitness assessment in schools (Straits Times, Nov 8) signifies a major paradigm shift in fitness education. This is true not just for MOE, but for Singapore as a nation.

First introduced in schools in 1982, the National Physical Fitness Award (Napfa) Test will now be conducted every alternate year instead of annually. The idea is to take a more holistic approach to student development by exposing students to a wider range of sport and physical activities.

Napfa results will no longer be translated into absolute fitness grades (A to E), but will instead be given qualitative descriptors (such as "needs improvement" and "outstanding performance") to educate students on their strengths and weaknesses in the six tests (2.4km run, pull-up, one-minute sit-up, standing broad jump, shuttle run and sit-and-reach). This provides a more useful description of the student's performance level for each aspect of fitness.

In the previous system, test performance was translated into a single score, which gave the position of the student in the fitness profile of his or her cohort. But this scoring system falls short in helping students appreciate what the results meant to their lifestyle, sport or exercise habits. The revised Napfa scoring system not only addresses this limitation, but goes further to extend the application of results to the wider context of physical education (PE).

Together with the Individual Physical Proficiency Test, which all Singapore males have to take from the time they enlist for national service, the Napfa test has become a common barometer of physical fitness. But its usefulness, particularly when it results in less time for sport, has always been a point of contention.

The new approach in fitness testing shows the willingness of MOE to make significant changes to established practices to serve the broader mission of PE and education in general.

Under the new curriculum, PE will be dedicated to teaching a wider repertoire of fundamental movement and sport skills in a "play" and "fun" environment. This approach not only engages the natural inclination of children and youth to be active but also creates an interactive environment that facilitates the development of skills that can be useful for life. Fitness testing will no longer be about passing or failing a test. Instead, it will be about creating awareness of individual fitness status as an integral part of the PE curriculum.

How will this be done? For a start, PE will be designed to develop psychomotor skills and build character and lifelong interest in sport and exercise. There will be less time for fitness-test training and more for development of sport skills and social values such as teamwork, integrity and respect. This shift in direction brings PE back to its core mission of imparting sport skills and social values to students.

Fitness testing and training will complement the teaching of fitness concepts in the sport being taught in the PE curriculum. One such application is in using the revised Napfa test scores as a teaching tool to help students appreciate fitness attributes related to the variety of sports taught in the curriculum. For example, students who fall into the category of "needs improvement" at the pull-up station may be educated on correct training methods and the need for upper body strength in sports such as basketball and rock climbing.

In other words, the policy change has transformed Napfa from a fitness-testing tool into a fitness-education tool.

The revised curriculum will also assess PE outcomes using a more holistic set of outcome indicators that assess student development not only in the physical domain, but also in the cognitive, affective and social domains. The PE fraternity should take advantage of this opportunity to uphold the core mission of PE and its role in holistic student development.

The improvements made to the Napfa test are designed to encourage Singaporeans to grow up with a different experience of PE in school. If done well, sport and exercise may become a lifelong interest for new generations of Singaporeans, thus setting the stage for a richer sporting culture.

The writer is an exercise physiologist and the executive director, Singapore Sport Institute.

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