Washington — Physical education classes in American schools have come a long way from the days when a student played touch football for 10 weeks, then switched to basketball for 10 weeks, and so on.
Besides traditional sports, many schools today also offer such athletic exotica as rock climbing, kayaking, and ''ultimate Frisbee.''
Yet many students never experience these activities, for one simple reason: Physical education (PE) classes are no longer required.
Over the past 10 years, PE requirements in United States schools have faded like a home run hit over the fence. At present, only three states in the US require students to take some form of PE during all four years of high school - Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Alabama requires 3 1/2 years. All other states require less than three years of physical education, some states only one year. But even this may change. In Massachusetts there are three bills pending that would virtually eliminate the PE requirement.
Fitness advocates have been watching these developments with concern and taking them as an indication that the importance of physical education is not fully appreciated. In view of persistent reports that the fitness level of most American children is poor, many feel the time has come to reverse the decline in school commitment to PE. In Texas, for instance, PE instructors are supporting a major reform piece (Bill 246) before the Legislature that refers to physical education as an essential element of the school curriculum. In California there is a similar proposal (Resolution 121) to require physical education at school.
Another development is a testing program called Fitnessgram, which is being groomed for national use. Issued in the fall and spring of school each year, the Fitnessgram is designed to help educators determine the overall fitness levels of their students. Each child is tested on pullups, sit-ups, standing long jump, 50-yard dash, and similar activities, and his scores are compared with national norms to assess his level of fitness.
The resulting report card provides teachers and parents with a profile of the child and a recommended exercise program to help improve that child's fitness. The program was piloted with some 9,000 children in the Tulsa, Okla., school district during the 1982-83 school year. During the last school year the program was enlarged to include 127 Oklahoma school districts.
There are still doubts about the benefits of such a testing program, however. Jack Razor, executive vice-president of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, suggests that the effectiveness of the Fitnessgram will be limited unless the schools start taking physical education seriously again. ''The point will be missed, and interest in PE will never grow,'' he said at the recent National Conference on Youth Fitness sponsored by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports here.
Some schools, however, are doing their best both to interest students and to gain the blessing of parents. Wayland High School, in a suburb west of Boston, has such an array of courses available that, as one student joked, ''We need more time to get the ones we want into our timetable.'' Courses in orienteering, aerobic dance, cycling, cross-country skiing, fencing, archery, and yoga are among the offerings. Wayland's Project Confidence course, a ropes challenge modeled after Outward Bound activities, combines teamwork and strategy with tough individual efforts. It is one of the department's most popular, according to PE instructor Deborah Todd.
Solutions to the problems of youth fitness are not easy or ''sweat-less.'' But many educators and others feel they are worthwhile. Regular, vigorous exercise is certainly helpful to physical and emotional development in a young person, says Dr. Wynn F. Updyke of Indiana University, and studies show that a child's self-confidence and self-mastery grow as his fitness level rises. At the Washington conference, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana observed: ''If we don't teach our young to grow in both mind and body, the nation will not grow.''