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
for sex* and for sex* and
HIV HIV education
STATE SEX HIV Contraception Abstinence
Alabama X X Stress
California X X Cover
Colorado X Stress
Delaware X X X Stress