The Multiple Choices of Sex Education: Giving a Quiz or a Test after Sex Education Courses May Not Be the Best Way to Ensure That Students Use What They've Learned in Class to Make Good Decisions after Class

By Hamilton, Rashea; Sanders, Megan et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Multiple Choices of Sex Education: Giving a Quiz or a Test after Sex Education Courses May Not Be the Best Way to Ensure That Students Use What They've Learned in Class to Make Good Decisions after Class


Hamilton, Rashea, Sanders, Megan, Anderman, Eric M., Phi Delta Kappan


Sex education in middle and high school health classes is critically important because it frequently comprises the primary mechanism for conveying information about sexual health to adolescents. Deliver evidence-based information on HIV and pregnancy prevention practices, and they will be less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, the theory goes. One must ultimately inquire, however, if these programs actually work. Do adolescents actually implement what they learn in health education classes? Consider these two examples:

  Joe Ryder is a high school health teacher; he spends 15 days on sex
  education, and, at the end of the 15 days, his students take a unit
  test similar to the types of tests they take after units on smoking,
  cardiovascular health, and drugs.

  Cynthia Barnes is a high school health teacher; she also spends
  15 days on sex education, but rather than giving her students a unit
  test, she engages them in role-playing activities in which the
  students must demonstrate how they would react in risky situations.

Now, think about what might happen three months later. Suppose that a student in Ryder's class and a student in Barnes' class both find themselves in risky sexual situations. Which student do you think will be more likely to remember and use effective safe sex strategies?

The assessment techniques used in sex education classes affect students' ability to use what they've learned in those classes. While teachers and parents may think tests or quizzes are appropriate forms of health education assessment, we argue that educators must seriously consider whether traditional techniques are the best ways to assess this type of learning. Although such assessment techniques may demonstrate short-term learning, they don't guarantee that students will remember and use the information when they find themselves confronted with critical sexual decisions.

Sex education aims and assessments

One objective of health education is to create positive behavioral change within the context of sexual health (Glanz, Rimer, & Viswanath, 2008). Sex education in health classes should provide students with impartial information about safe practices and methods for avoiding risky behaviors. Ideally, with this knowledge, students will make informed decisions before engaging in sexual activity, which will help decrease the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy.

Although most students will take a sex education class, their experiences will vary greatly due to the lack of standardized curricula at the federal, state, and sometimes district level that schools are required to follow (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2002; Landry, Singh, & Darroch, 2000). The federal government provides funding to states and districts but doesn't regulate these programs, leaving states to configure curricula and content for schools. Of the states that require some form of sex-related education, two require sex education only, 20 require sex education and HIV education, and 13 require HIV education only (Guttmacher Institute, 2012). (See Figure 1.)

FIG. 1. Sex education by state: General and content requirements

General                                  Content
requirements                          requirements
for sex* and                          for sex* and
HIV                                  HIV education
education

                                     WHEN PROVIDED,
                                     SEX EDUCATION
                                          MUST
                                         include
                                       information
                                           on:
STATE             SEX          HIV     Contraception   Abstinence
              EDUCATION*  EDUCATION
               MANDATED   MANDATED

Alabama                   X          X               Stress

Arizona                                              Stress

Arkansas                                             Stress

California                X          X               Cover

Colorado                             X               Stress

Connecticut               X

Delaware      X           X          X               Stress

Dist. … 

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