Students do well on D.C. health, physical education exam

November 15, 2013

D.C. fifth- and eighth-graders know more about communication and emotional health than they know about the human body and nutrition, according to the results of the city’s second-ever standardized test on health and physical education.

High school seniors, meanwhile, correctly answered nearly three out of four questions about sexuality and reproduction but were less well-versed in disease prevention and nutrition.

Citywide, students correctly answered nearly two-thirds of the questions on the 2013 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment for Health and Physical Education, according to results that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education submitted to the D.C. Council.

The results showed no significant change in performance compared with 2012. But the OSSE published only citywide averages, not school-by-school data — a disappointment to health-education advocates who say that without results from individual schools, it is hard to know where to direct improvement efforts.

The OSSE “is withholding information from parents and the public and groups like us who are very eager to help make things better,” said Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAids, a community health organization.

Tenner said it is clear that there is room for progress. He said, for example, that a pregnant teen who sought help from Metro TeenAids last year did not know how she got pregnant or what she could have done to avoid pregnancy.

“The big concern is, without knowing more about the system, we don’t actually know if we’re creating a next generation of more health-literate citizens,” Tenner said.

OSSE officials said they provided each school with its own results but do not plan to publicize those numbers until they get approval from all participants.

The OSSE submitted the results as part of a report on compliance with the 2010 Healthy Schools Act, which showed that traditional and charter schools must double the amount of time they spend on physical and health education to meet new requirements that kick in next fall.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who sponsored the law, said she expects schools to seek permission to delay that new requirement.

“But they’ve known that this is coming,” said Cheh, adding that she would like the OSSE to require each school to submit a plan for ramping up time devoted to physical education and health.

Advocates applauded last year when the District became the first jurisdiction in the country to administer a standardized health and sex-education exam, calling it key to beginning to address the District’s high rates of obesity, sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy.

OSSE officials developed the exam, which has more than 40 questions. and administered it in the spring to more than 11,000 students in traditional and public charter schools. Although all schools are supposed to administer the exam, eight schools opted not to, said OSSE officials, who pointed out that they have no meaningful enforcement mechanism.

Fifth-graders answered 64 percent of the questions correctly, ranging from a low of 45 percent on questions related to the human body to 78 percent on communication and emotional health.

Eighth-graders also answered 64 percent of all questions correctly but got only 50 percent of the nutrition questions — and 59 percent about human development and sexuality — correct. High school seniors answered 63 percent of questions correctly.

These results cannot be directly compared with math and reading results, which are reported in terms of the percentage of students who are proficient — a different measure than the percentage of questions answered correctly.

The test results come on the heels of DC Appleseed’s annual report card on the city’s progress toward tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic. That report card criticized “the glaring deficiency of HIV/AIDS education within public charter schools,” faulting the OSSE and the D.C. Public Charter School Board for failing to provide incentives to schools to improve health education.

The highest percentage of new HIV cases in the city is among 20- to 29-year-olds, according to DC Appleseed. The largest increase in new chlamydia and gonorrhea cases is among 15- to 19-year-olds.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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