By ZOE MORGAN
For decades, sex education has sparked debate across the country. Parents and school districts have clashed over what students should learn, and when they should learn it. However, Washington, D.C. is the only state in the country that has a standardized assessment to test students’ sex education knowledge.
Since 2012, the district has conducted an annual Health and Physical Education Assessment (HPEA) for fifth-graders, eighth-graders, and high school students. In high schools, students take the exam the same year that they take a health class. Since its implementation, the test has had multiple iterations and the district is currently considering doubling the length of the exam and working to increase student participation rates.
In 2017, 94 percent of schools participated in the exam, but only about 60 percent of eligible high school students took the exam. Aimee McLaughlin, a health education specialist with the district, said that while these rates aren’t disappointing, improving student participation is one of the district’s goals.
“Overall participation rates at the school level were not too bad,” McLaughlin said. “At the student level, as we anticipated and we often see, [the] high school participation rate at the student level was a little low.”
Student participation rates were higher in eighth and fifth grades, with 69 and 79 percent of students participating, respectively. McLaughlin said that at the high school level there are particular issues because of problems scheduling the exam and lower student attendance rates. Decreasing the number of schools who have few students actually taking the assessment is a priority, McLaughlin said.
Although school participation is currently at 94 percent, about a dozen schools failed to participate entirely in 2017.
“The HPEA is a requirement of the Healthy Schools Act of 2010,” McLaughlin said. “By that law, schools are all required to participate. That said, I think it’s a classic struggle of a state agency like ours. We have a law that’s mandated and we don’t have much of a stick to enforce it.”
The Healthy Schools Act was a piece of legislation introduced by Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh to address issues ranging from school food to sex education.
After receiving complaints from school personnel who wanted to be able to see their data faster, McLaughlin said the district is rolling out a tool that allows teachers to see their data much more rapidly. Although McLaughlin said that the feedback from this tool’s roll out has been positive, not all teachers say that they have access to the data.
James Howes, a health teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School, said that he still hasn’t seen any data on last year’s exam, despite getting information back for other standardized tests that the district administers.
“I’d love to actually see something come back and have an idea of where that we can improve,” Howes said.
The test itself is short, only 21 multiple choice questions that students complete online. Howes said that it takes most of his students no longer than 15 minutes to complete. The district is reviewing the possibility of expanding the test to 42 questions and creating a list of sample questions for teachers to use.
Currently the exam tests student knowledge in seven domains, with three questions coming from each area. The domains are: “alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs,” “disease prevention,” “human body and person health,” “mental and emotional health,” “nutrition,” “physical education” and “safety skills.” Questions on sex education are included throughout the assessment.
The level of the questions differs by grade level, and is intended to be age appropriate, McLaughlin said. Fifth graders might be asked questions about puberty or what to do if someone touches them inappropriately. In high school, the questions are about topics like sexual transmitted disease prevention and healthy relationships.
For example, the district’s health education standards say that by fifth grade, students should be able to: “Describe the human cycle of reproduction, birth, growth, aging and death. Explain the structure, function, and major parts of the human reproductive system.” In high school, students are expected to: “Analyze factors, including alcohol and other substances that can affect the ability to give or perceive the provision of consent to sexual activity.”
When Howes teaches health to a group of fourth and fifth graders, he focuses on ensuring that he meets students where they are at. Topics that he covers including emotional health, puberty and the human reproductive system.
“We’ve always found a way to take the content and make it age appropriate to where they are,” Howes said. “And each class, each year is very different.”
In this classroom setting, Howes focuses on building trust with students and creating an environment where they feel safe. However, this same trust doesn’t exist in a standardized exam setting, Howes said.
Each year, Howes has two or three parents who opt their children out of the sex education questions on the test, an option that is open to parents. In some cases, these are parents who allowed their children to take part in the class, but feel uncomfortable with the district tracking information about their student’s knowledge of sex education.
Despite comprehensive sex education being a hot button issue on many parts of the country, McLaughlin said that she hasn’t heard very much backlash from parents on the exam. Few parents actually opt their students out of the exam, McLaughlin said.
After seeing students at their school get pregnant, McKinley Technology High School seniors Cassell Robinson and classmate Makayla Williams both said that they feel sex education is important for students to learn. Williams said that she wants to make sure that her peers are being safe and have the knowledge they need. For Robinson, sex education is a gateway the rest of a student’s education.
“Sex education is important because education is in general very important,” Robinson said. “If you don’t have the proper sex education, it could really hurt your regular education. Because let’s say you’re in a relationship and have a teen pregnancy. That can really make it hard to go to college and get an education and get a good job and just live your life.”
At the high school level, Robinson said that the questions relating to sex education covered topics including the different types of contraceptives available and information about sexually transmitted diseases. Robinson said that he didn’t know of many students whose parents opted them out of the sex education portion of the test and said that the material closely mirrored what he had learned in his health class.
“It was a fairly easy test, not too difficult,” Robinson said. “But things you couldn’t just guess and know.”
Student performance on the test has seen slight improvement over time, but the district is still looking for greater increases. In 2017, on average high school students answered 56 percent of questions correctly. That number was 54 percent in 2016. Eighth grade results saw a one point increase from 66 to 67 percent. And fifth grade went from 71 to 72 percent.
However, McLaughlin stressed that the district doesn’t yet have good longitudinal data about the exam. In the 2014-2015 school year, the district transitioned to a new standardized testing system for all exams. The HPEA was put on hold that year, and a new version of the exam was released for the 2015-2016 year. This means that there is only two years of data about the new exam.
Making comparisons is further complicated by the fact that schools were allowed to make their own assessments in 2016, and were only required to use the standardized version last year in 2017. About a half dozen schools had chosen to make their own exam, and their results were inconsistent.
“We felt like the results were sort of all over the place, hard to glean performance from, and understand if students were really performing to the standards,” McLaughlin said. “And so…last year we just had everybody use the standard assessment.”
Going forward, the district wants to collect multiple years of data on the standardized assessment to see how student performance and participation is changing over time. The district is also in the process of preparing a report on school by school performance that will be available to the public.