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Testing Smoke and Mirrors

News from our nation's capital:

The District's rates of childhood obesity, sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy are among the country's highest.

For several years

Periodic surveys have detailed student attitudes toward risky behavior, but officials said the annual test will fill gaps in their understanding of what young people know and why they might behave the way they do.

So, you'll be relieved to know that

D.C. public and public charter schools, which annually test student progress in reading and math, will also measure what they know about human sexuality, contraception and drug use starting this spring. The 50-question exam will be the nation's first statewide standardized test on health and sex education, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which developed the assessment for grades 5, 8 and 10.

To be fair, I went to look at the sample questions provided at both the 5th and 12th grade level which were drawn from the Council of Chief State School Officers compiled list of more than 2,000 potential test questions for a health education assessment project. I answered 8 of the 9 questions correctly, scoring 88% which, in most school systems, is a B. I found out that I was not smarter than a 5th grader when it came to smoking. Here's the question I missed:

6. Advertisements for cigarettes may convey all of the following messages EXCEPT that smoking cigarettes:
  • is a way to make friends.
  • enhances athletic performance.
  • makes a person popular.
  • is difficult to quit.

I wasn't sure how the average DC 5th grader was going to figure it out.

First of all, I wondered, how many kids would be real clear on what the question meant by "convey"--especially if English was not their first language.

Then I wondered to which advertisements the question was referring. The question says "advertisements for cigarettes", which is different than "advertisements about cigarettes." This matters a lot because it is quite possible that students have seen more advertisements "about" than "for" and it is quite possible that those "about" ads were promoting non-smoking. Why? The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969 placed strong limitations on all tobacco advertising and prohibited TV advertisement, but has invested heavily in non-smoking TV campaigns on those networks where young people are frequent viewers.

So if they weren't seeing them on TV, where were they encountering cigarette advertisements? Magazines? Most teachers will tell you that there are a limited number of print periodicals in our students' homes, especially children of low income families. But in response to National Institute of Health research on cigarette advertising many major magazines including Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated eliminated cigarette ads from school library editions in 2003--before those 5th graders ever started kindergarten.

So what does that leave? Billboards? I'm just not sure that the average 10 year old spends a lot of time analyzing the subliminal suggestions created by top advertising firms for tobacco product billboards as they fly by the window of the car. I've been watching for a couple of days, and I've seen no advertisements for tobacco products on the internet.

I'm going to be professional and diplomatic and say that the intent of the question may be somewhat unclear due to word choices; that the alternatives provided require an inappropriate expectation of deductive literary analysis for the targeted student population; and that some students may have insufficient exposure to multiple forms of tobacco advertising to make an informed judgment.

All that it is educationese for "this is really sort of a dumb question." If it tells us anything, it may provide some indication of how much children grasp about persuasive speech based on visual literacy. But it is unlikely that it will provide any real information about the likelihood of a child's future use of tobacco.

But here's the really interesting thing: There is a mindset that if young people can just learn the answers to these questions, they will make wise choices about eating habits, sexual relationships, substance abuse, and interpersonal relationships. Teachers can teach them the content and even the test questions, but knowing the answers is not the same thing as applying the knowledge in life. If just knowing the answers to the questions was all we needed, there would be no doctors in rehab facilities, there would be no scientists that smoke, there would be no lawyers entangled in paternity suits, there would be no coaches or retired athletes who were overweight and out of shape.

We will not change performance by memorizing the answers. Not in sex education or any other course. It's a smoke screen that serves administrative and policy purposes, but it doesn't help kids very much. When are policymakers going to figure that out?

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