Is technology going too far in measuring student performance?

In thousands of schools across the country — including dozens within Central Pennsylvania — students are strapping on heart monitors and being judged by the rate of their pulse. Some call it an effective way to grade ‘effort.’ Others call it intrusive, inaccurate and unnecessary.

Polar, an international manufacturer of wearable technology, has provided heart monitors to more than 10,000 schools in the U.S. Its “Teacher Guide Book: Lessons for Life” states that its technology will provide “proof of daily activity and students’ efforts during exercise.” Slackers beware.

According to Trisha Nieder, a senior brand experience director at Polar, more than 60 schools in our state currently use her company’s monitors; the majority are located in Central Pennsylvania. Neider would not reveal specifically which schools the company serves. One, we learned independently, is East Pennsboro Area High School.

This fall, East Pennsboro gave its P.E. students Polar heart monitors to wear in class. Their heart rates are displayed, alongside their Polar device’s number, on screens for all students to see. And each student will be graded by how long his or her heartbeat remains in the “target heart rate zone” as determined by subtracting the student’s age from 220. The school shared the rubric with the students on the first day of school detailing the grading measures.

“Students are responsible to ensure that they are using each activity (team and individual) to improve their ‘health related fitness’ by staying in their target HR zone for the prescribed amount of time,” stated a school letter given to students at the start of the school year. The target heart rate zones for students, the letter goes on to explain, are to be “greater than 70 percent of their maximum heart rate (~202-206 beats per minute).”

For individual activities, the school will give the student a grade that correlates to the percent of time the student spends within the target heart rate zone. “For example,” the letter explains, “[if] the student spends 90 percent of the class in their target zone, the student will earn a 90 percent grade for the assignment.”

For group activities, students will earn points for the percentage of time they spend in the target heart rate zone: 5 points if the student remains in the target zone for 80-100 percent of the time; 4 points if it’s for 60-79 percent of the time; and so on. The whole thing has some crying foul.


Helping or hurting?

“My child shouldn’t have to worry that her heart-related data is now on display and determining her grade,” says Sherry Andersen, mother of a 10th grader at East Pennsboro. “Let’s say she’s having a bad allergy day. Does she take a bad grade, or push herself to a level that is dangerous for her? Does she push herself to a level that kicks in her asthma?”

There’s some concern among medical professionals, too.

“I can understand where schools are coming from,” says Mary Tierney, M.D., a family physician at WellSpan Family & Sports Medicine – Cocalico who is certified in sports medicine. “It’s recommended to reach that 50-70 percent of that maximum heart rate for conditioning.” But, she explains, “For those in a P.E. class, using a heart rate monitor isn’t necessary. If a student has a specific [medical] condition, they should see a doctor to determine if they should wear a heart rate monitor to see if their heart rate number is consistent, or higher than what it should be.”

The physician says that monitors that go around the chest — like those being used at East Pennsboro — are more accurate than those worn on the wrist. But she says she would not recommend that a typical student use one.

“There’s so much more they have to understand about what exactly the numbers mean. Trained athletes can use them to see how they’re increasing their conditioning, as their heart rate lessens. But then you also should look at their VO2 max, their anaerobic threshold,” which the heart rate monitors don’t measure.

Another concern is comparing performance rates of different-level athletes.

“You have to consider how conditioned they are,” says Dr. Tierney. “What is their level of fitness? If someone has been conditioning for a while, their resting heart rate is going to be low. And some people take a lot longer to be able to get to that target zone where they can last a while.”

Sherry has related concerns. “The chart they use to set the target heart rate does not factor in medical conditions, medications, current health or other health variables that change from day to day — for example, illness,” she says. “Their letter to students states that they will be graded based on reaching the targeted heart range; they may be graded on other variables. If this were just about kids understanding and learning how to monitor their heart rate, I wouldn’t have these concerns.”

Central Penn Parent reached out to East Pennsboro School District for comment, but as of press time, had not heard back. However, two weeks after the new school year had started, the district notified parents by email of its planned use of heart rate monitors in the classroom. The district’s letter to parents stated that the monitors, “will be implemented once we ensure that all parents and students understand the benefits of this tool and how it will enhance our physical education curriculum.”


An intrusion on privacy?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has broadly stated on its website that our “digital footprint is constantly growing, containing more and more data about the most intimate aspects of our lives. This includes our communications, whereabouts, online searches, purchases, and even our bodies. When the government has easy access to this information, we lose more than just privacy and control over our information. Free speech, security, and equality suffer as well.”

Parents here are concerned about school districts having access to their children’s heart rate data. One week after school began, a post on the Parents of East Pennsboro Area District Facebook page about the heart monitors had several commenters asking whether the decision to use the monitors were a violation of HIPPA laws. But according to a July 2018 article in, HIPPA privacy rules would only apply if the wearable technology interfaces with the student’s healthcare insurer or physician’s practice. If and when a healthcare insurer or provider seeks data from wearable devices, the requesting organization is responsible for making sure the data is protected and stored in a HIPPA-compliant way.

Sherry Andersen says that it’s sad that our students don’t have the right to decide if they want to share their personal data. Education trends indicate that the data schools collect may soon go beyond the physical measurements of heart rates to assessing the emotional state of our kids as they work on various subjects.

A June 12, 2018 Education Week article detailed a free software platform, Algebra Nation, that eighth graders in test markets across the country have been using in school and on laptops at home. While students watch videos of math instructors explaining concepts, the platform’s software tracks their behavior; each click of the mouse is recorded and analyzed. Researchers hope to analyze that data to create new software that can “pinpoint when children are feeling happy, bored or engaged.”

Data like that can help education providers tailor lessons to suit an individual’s learning style and interests. But critics are already voicing their concerns, according to the Education Week article. Some worry about us creating an Orwellian surveillance state, where government and software corporations toss student privacy aside in favor of never-ending data collection.

Time will tell if kids will start earning A’s for enthusiasm.

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