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Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together

Multiple choice testThe first standardized health and sexuality education test for students in the public and charter schools in Washington, D.C., has become a reality-and I am thrilled. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step. I applaud the District of Columbia for taking the first step in the nation to assess what students know-and don’t know- about sexuality topics like contraception and health topics like nutrition, mental health and drug use.

This spring, students in grades 5, 8 and 10 in a district with 75,000 students will be tested for their knowledge on these and similar health-related topics.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years to the date since I wrote a column promoting the idea of a national health education test. In that column, I called for funds to create a standardized national health education test covering a wide range of health-related topics. High school students would be required to pass it in order to graduate.

Somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggested that Harvard require passage of the test as part of the admissions process: If the mother-of-all universities had such a requirement, then other universities would probably follow!

Such a test would be a win-win for kids and adults: It would get health education out of the periphery of the school curriculum, where it languishes, and give it the important role that it needs to promote lifelong wellness. What’s more, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and teens would take health education more seriously if it were a subject students would be tested on. And although certainly not a magic bullet, good information conveyed by good instruction is fundamental to behavior change. Finally, test results might prod school districts to improve woefully deficient health and sexuality education programs.

I hadn’t thought much about my idea until a colleague forwarded this Washington Post article. The headline immediately caught my attention: “D.C. schools prepare for the nation’s first sex-education standardized testing.” Well, I thought, it’s not a national test, but maybe the way to get there is state by state by state.

The health and sex ed questions will be multiple choice and skills based rather than only soliciting correct information. For example, if there is a question about condoms, students at the 10th grade level most likely would be asked to make or check a list of the correct steps from purchasing a package of condoms to using one.

For my original piece, I spoke to Nancy Hudson, a senior associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in Washington, D. C. Hudson works for the Health Education Assessment Project (HEAP) whose mission is “to develop effective standards-based health education resources to improve health literacy through improved instruction.”

“We have over 1,900 assessment items to work with in constructing a test, and they are free to any state asking to use them. The D. C. sex ed assessments uses many of these 1,900 items which were tested for validity and reliability that are two essentials in school testing,” explains Hudson.

Obviously, there are many ways to skin the sex-education standardized test cat at the state level, and the D.C. schools have focused on one way: inserting questions in the general assessment tests of other subjects, such as reading and math, which are administered for a two-week period in the spring.

Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, a community health education nonprofit that works to promote sexuality and HIV education in the D.C. public schools [link to: http://metroteenaids.org/], was one of the driving forces behind the development of the tests.

Tenner told me that he enthusiastically approves of the new test, agreeing that in education “what gets measured gets done.” He said that he and others in the city who advocated for inserting the questions in the assessments argued that “healthy kids learn better, healthy kids stay in school and don’t drop out, and healthy kids complete more grades in school and college so they can get better jobs.”

It bothers Tenner that the media and opponents have already labeled the new assessment “the sex test.” He said that opponents argue that “if kids can’t learn to read, why should they learn about sex.” I suggested a retort that I often used to stop this argument in its tracks: “Use age-appropriate materials about sexual issues with kids, and they might improve their reading.” He liked it.

Now that D.C. has taken the all-important first step, perhaps New Jersey will step up and become the second state to consider using a statewide standardized sexuality education test. The cost of preparing the tests for New Jersey-which Tom Ewing, the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS’s) director of external relations, estimated at $250,000 two years ago when I spoke to him-would now be greatly reduced if we were to use the test items from D.C.

Local schools boards in the strapped cities might mention the expense of adapting and giving the test as reasons for not doing it. Therefore, it might be better to have the State Board of Education interested in the issue and work with the Commissioner and possibly the Commissioner of Health to find monies to pay for a statewide assessment.

I’ve been warned that joining sexuality education with standardized testing is a toxic brew that will incur the wrath of people opposed to both ideas. But we’ll never know what a good idea this might be unless we give it a try.

Teaching to the test on this subject makes good sense.

Ewing of ETS told me it would take about 18 months to develop a statewide test. In the meantime, let’s promote some new words to a familiar old adage: “Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together.”

Soon.

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