On Wednesday, Washington D.C. officials released the results of the nation's first-ever standardized test about physical education, health, and sex ed. The 50-question test was designed last year to test 5th, 8th and 10th graders on their knowledge of nutrition, disease prevention, alcohol and drugs, safety skills, mental and emotional health, and sexuality and reproduction. As the Washington Post reported, "The testing initiative combines two political and cultural flash points in American schools: sex education and standardized testing."
D.C.'s data-driven approach to sex ed should serve as a model for the nation. Not only does testing students on their health knowledge identify important gaps in information — for instance, while D.C. high school students answered 75% of sexual health questions correctly, they knew far less about how to locate and access health information and assistance — but it helps schools determine how to best allocate the time and resources for health education.
Currently, only 22 states (and D.C.) require schools to provide both sexuality and STD/HIV prevention education. 15 states require only STD/HIV prevention education, while 13 states do not require any kind of sex ed.
Further, according to the nonprofit and research organization Advocates for Youth, "Sexuality education is seldom integrated with other aspects of health education, such as drug education, or with other courses such as social studies, literature, and humanities." In contrast, the D.C. test addresses a variety of health concerns at once, an approach which may help to link health concepts in students' minds.
Despite initial concerns regarding the test, D.C. school officials administered the test to over 11,000 public and public charter school students.
As is typical in debates about sex ed in school, parents wanted questions on the test to address gaps in factual knowledge, rather than promote a specific set of health behaviors or values. Other researchers corroborate this pattern of parental concern. A 2004 study conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government found that 72% of parents of high school students supported sex education in schools, but are about evenly split on whether or not sex educators should provide guidance on sexual decision-making.
Still, only 9% of the parents of 5th graders chose to opt out of the sex-related questions, and even fewer (2% each) of 8th graders' and 10th graders' parents opted out.
It is not clear what the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will do with the results of the test, but teen health advocates hope that schools will use the data to address deficiencies in their health programming. As it stands, most schools do not use standardized health education curricula, and many instructors have little to no training in sexuality education. These inconsistencies within schools, districts, states, and across the nation lead to huge regional and local differences in knowledge. For instance, while 66.3% of students in Hawaii received information on 11 core sex ed topics (as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), only 12.6% of students in Arizona learned the same material.
Standardized sex ed tests would allow schools to determine what their students are actually learning about their health, and thus fill in gaps in knowledge. D.C. is to be commended for taking quantitative steps towards better health education for its students.