D.C. students to be tested on sex education

September 14, 2011

D.C. public and public charter schools, which annually test student progress in reading and math, will also measure what they know about human sexuality, contraception and drug use starting this spring.

The 50-question exam will be the nation’s first statewide standardized test on health and sex education, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which developed the assessment for grades 5, 8 and 10.

The District’s rates of childhood obesity, sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy are among the country’s highest. Periodic surveys have detailed student attitudes toward risky behavior, but officials said the annual test will fill gaps in their understanding of what young people know and why they might behave the way they do.

“It paints a fuller picture,” said Brian Pick, deputy chief of curriculum and instruction for D.C. Public Schools. “We don’t know as a system or as a city what knowledge kids have about these topics.”

A 2009 District study found that nearly half of the city’s chlamydia and gonorrhea diagnoses were among District residents 15 to 19 years old. Two-thirds of all diagnoses were among those younger than 24. Also, more than 3 percent of District residents older than 12 were living with HIV or AIDS in 2009, the report said.

The testing initiative combines two political and cultural flash points in American schools: sex education and standardized testing. Some parents said yesterday that they didn’t object to the idea out of hand but wanted to learn more about the details. One mother expressed concern about more classroom time being consumed by preparation for yet another test. It will be administered in April on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS), along with reading and math (grades 3 through 8 and 10), composition (4, 7, 10), science (grade 5) and biology (grade 10).

“Teaching to the test for health, too?” asked Nakisha Winston, head of the PTA at Langdon Education Campus in Northeast Washington.

Officials said that the test, which will also include questions on nutrition, mental health and drug use, is based on a provision of the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which the D.C. Council passed to address health issues in the 75,000-student system.

But the legislation’s sponsor, council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), said the law requires only that the District produce an annual report describing progress on student health concerns. It does not mandate creation of another standardized test.

“I had a much-less-rigid interpretation of the reporting idea,” said Cheh, adding that she doesn’t necessarily object to the test. “Maybe they think that’s the most efficient way to do it. Maybe they think it will be taken more seriously.”

The questions have been adapted by local educators from a group of sample questions devised by the Council of Chief State School Officers to improve the rigor of health education. Some states have also started drawing on the questions assembled by the school officers’ council.

According to the organization’s Web site, South Carolina is also field testing a statewide health-education assessment.

The test items have also been aligned to health education standards approved by the D.C. State Board of Education in 2008 to guide instruction on subjects such as STDs, HIV/AIDs, conflict resolution and respectful communication.

Adam Tenner, executive director of MetroTeenAIDS, a community health organization that helps with health education in D.C. schools, applauded the new test, citing the adage that “what gets measured gets done.”

But he said the effort needs to go deeper than that.

“We are not preparing teachers or students to get good, high-quality sex and reproductive education,” Tenner said. He cited his organization’s analysis of a new state report that shows that most health education programs in schools remain seriously deficient.

“We don’t need a test to tell us we’re coming up short,” Tenner said.

Some parents said Wednesday that the District needed to proceed cautiously.

“I know it’s very touchy subject, and we have to be very careful about how to present it,” said Mark Jones, a member of the D.C. State School Board who represents Ward 5 and is a parent of two public school children. But he added: “I don’t think our children understand enough on STDs and high-risk behavior, especially in the African American community. We need to know more.”

Winston said she would be comfortable if the test hewed strictly to questions of fact and did not veer into issues of morality that are more appropriately sorted out at home.

“I can see different parents having different values on different things,” she said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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