Schools around the country have started checking students’ body mass index (BMI) and sending home “report cards” that include the information to parents. But is it worth it? Does it actually…help?
Currently, 21 states require BMI screenings or other weight-related assessments at schools, but a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raises questions about the usefulness of the tests.
For the study, researchers analyzed more than 3 million BMI reports for New York City public school students from 2007 to 2012. They compared the students who were classified as overweight but near the cutoff of the “healthy weight” category alongside students who just narrowly missed being classified as overweight.
The team looked at the BMI reports for the following academic year and found that the students were not at all affected by being classified as “overweight” or “obese.”
The school system gave each of its 1.1 million students a report containing their BMI number, weight percentile, and until last year, a classification of “underweight,” ”healthy weight,” ”overweight” or “obese.” Students outside of a healthy weight were urged to consult a health professional.
Study co-author Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, said:
“A year later, if you’re looking at the girls, the ones that got the overweight notice are no trimmer, no less likely to be overweight, or … no less likely to be obese.
I think that the hope was that by letting parents know, ‘Hey, your kid is overweight, your kid is obese,’ they would say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ and take action, or the kid would, and we didn’t see that.”
In fact, the overage overweight female student gained a bit more weight than girls who fell just below the cut-off.
Schwartz said the findings were similar for boys. She believes many of the students classified as overweight or obese simply dismissed the information because it was old news, and nothing shocking. 
“It’s not enough just to get the information out there. You have to get it to people in a way that’s actionable.”
Some say the tests aren’t only pointless, they’re also dangerous to children’s and teens’ still-developing and fragile emotions.
For example, at the end of the study, the school district switched to the less-insulting “needs improvement” to describe students outside of a healthy weight.
Opponents of the screenings say the tests do nothing but humiliate kids and add to their preexisting anxieties about looking like and fitting in with their peers, and point out that the screenings can easily mistake a muscular kid for a chunky one, making healthy kids believe they’re fat. In 2013, Massachusetts ditched the BMI screening requirements for these reasons, although parents can still request the information.
One such opponent is Ava Parnass, psychotherapist and author of the book Hungry Feelings not Hungry Tummy. She said the screenings don’t work “because they’re shaming kids and families.”
She told CNN:
“So what does shame do? Shame makes you eat more but in a hidden secret way, and shame also makes kids and parents feel even more badly about themselves so they’ll eat even more.”
What does the BMI do? It’s a report card that doesn’t say, ‘Hey, here’s what you can do differently.’ There’s no teaching of new skills.”
Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity doctor and Harvard University instructor who studied Massachusetts’ former BMI reporting program, agrees, and recommends that schools who conduct the assessments try coupling BMI measurements with more comprehensive information about weight management.
But as The New York Times pointed out in 2012, physical education classes in many schools are either being significantly decreased or cut altogether.
And Michelle Obama’s infamously disgusting school lunches were dropped by more than 1 million students in 2014 alone, leaving kids starving and hunting for junk food.
School districts seem to want to point out the problem without offering any realistic solutions to the problem.