Washington, D.C. just released the results of the nation’s first standardized test measuring students’ knowledge of health and human sexuality. Although high school students were able to answer about 75 percent of the questions correctly, the results confirm that they knew less about practical solutions for sexual health issues, such as how to locate health information and assistance.
The District’s education department administered the 50-question health exam to more than 11,000 students in the city’s public schools and public charter schools last spring, developing age-appropriate assessments for students in grades 5, 8, and 10. Overall, D.C. students correctly answered about 62 percent of the questions on the exam, which focused on health topics like emotional wellness, disease prevention, and sex education. But fifth and eighth graders aren’t as educated about the human body as they should be, and high schoolers could only identify about 40 percent of the correct answers about where they can access more health resources if they need them.
Adam Tenner, the executive director of the community health organization Metro TeenAids, told the Washington Post that although the District’s students still have room for improvement, the exam does represent an important milestone for sexual education efforts:
“In a city with such high rates of HIV, teen pregnancy and STDs — let alone obesity and other diseases that plague our community — we’re not where we should be,” Tenner said in an interview. [...]
But the exam was also hailed by advocates as a step toward understanding — and ultimately decreasing — the city’s high rates of childhood obesity, sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.
Tenner called the test “historic” and praised officials for their willingness to begin examining the root causes of the city’s health problems. Now the question is what needs to be done to make sure schools have what they need to improve health education, he said.
Public schools in Washington, D.C. are required to include medically-accurate sexual health instruction in their health curricula, including information about sexual orientation and HIV prevention, although parents may choose to opt their children out of those courses. But 38 states across the country don’t currently mandate sexual education in schools, and often push misleading, shame-based “abstinence only” programs instead — with serious consequences for their students. One recent survey of sexual education curricula in New York, which doesn’t have specific standards for medically accurate instruction materials about sexual health in classrooms, found that public schools had “shocking gaps” in their sex ed courses.
Although the District’s students are already ahead of the national average, there is still room for improvement, as Tenner points out. Other surveys have found that the majority of college students don’t know how to use the Internet to figure out how to locate contraception, the same lack of knowledge about accessing health resources that D.C. high school students revealed. More comprehensive sexual education curricula could help prevent D.C. students from being in the same situation once they reach their undergrad years.