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District of Columbia: Teaching to the Test for Sex Ed?

Advocates for school-based sexuality education were excited to learn the results of the nation’s first-ever standardized test to include sexual health questions. The District of Columbia released the much-anticipated test score information in the closing days of 2012, setting the stage for continued debate in 2013 over the wisdom behind the maxim, “what gets tested, gets taught.”[1]

The 50-question test on phys ed and general health topics was administered in the Spring of 2012 to over 11,000 students in grades 5, 8, and 10.[2] Test items were developed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and administered in both the District’s public charter schools and traditional public schools. The impetus for the new test questions was the recently-enacted Healthy Schools Act of 2010, sponsored by city council member Mary Cheh. For parents who might object to test questions about sexual health, an opt-out provision was available for those particular items. About 9% of parents of 5th graders chose the opt-out, and even fewer (2%) opted out their 8th and 10th graders.[3]

Across all topics, students who took the test were able to answer slightly more than 6 out of 10 questions correctly. While tenth graders could identify only 4 of 10 correct answers about where to access general health information,[4] they performed better on specific sexual health items: for these, tenth graders answered an average of 3 out of 4 questions correctly.[5]

While many HIV prevention advocates in DC applaud the inclusion of sexual health questions in standardized testing, some opponents argue that ‘STEM’ topics (that is, Science, Technology, English, and Math) should be the sole focus of the school day. These skeptics “are wondering why the focus has shifted to health when math and reading scores are still lagging in this school district.”[6] Other skeptics don’t argue with the value of teaching health topics, especially those which could reduce students’ risks for HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. For them, the concern is the effect of standardized testing on instructional quality. In the words of Shana Bartley, a program director at the DC Young Women’s Project, students “have one week to learn about condoms and anatomy and then they move on to fire safety.”[7]

[1] Greg Toppo, “How Bush Education Law Has Changed Our Schools,” USA Today, 8 January 2007, retrieved 22 January 2013 at the Teachers College Media Center under “NCLB Turns Five Today,”  <>.

[2] Sam Meier, “Standardized Testing Gets Even More Controversial with New Sex Ed Test,”, December 2012, , accessed 9 January 2013, <>.


[4] Tara Culp-Ressler, “Nation’s First Standardized Sex Ed Test Reveals Gaps in Students’ Knowledge,, 13 December 2012, accessed 9 January 2013, <>.

[5] Emma Brown, “D.C. Releases Results of Nation’s First-Ever Standardized Test on Health and Sex Ed,” DC Schools Insider,, 12 December 2012, accessed 9 January 2013, <>.

[6] Grace Chen, “D.C. Schools Release First Standardized Testing on Sex Ed and Health Subjects,” Public, 23 December 2012, accessed 9 January 2013, <>.