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King County sex ed evaluation costs $4.8 million; Found program was ineffective

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The U.S. government gave millions in federal grants to evaluate a popular comprehensive sex education curriculum developed by the county containing Seattle. While evaluators found that the program did not change student behavior, the county continues to describe it as effective.

King County’s public health office received more than $4.8 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 2015 and 2019 to evaluate the behavioral and non-behavioral outcomes of students who participated in its FLASH program versus those who did not.

As Chalkboard has previously reported, comprehensive sex education has been targeted by those who say it teaches students about sex and consent, which they say can lead to sexual activity. Proponents say it’s important to teach students everything they need to know for healthy relationships.

The evaluation, published in an academic journal in February 2021, found that the FLASH program did not have a discernible effect on the behavior of students who were taught the curriculum compared to their peers who were not.

“The program did not reduce unprotected vaginal sex or sexual initiation across the entire study population as hypothesized,” the article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found.

The curriculum, however, did note some positive effects for some students: For students who had not been sexually active before the program, FLASH reduced rates of sex and sex without birth control and had positive effects on student thinking.

The evaluators, from a nonprofit called ETR, found FLASH “showed statistically significant gains in psychosocial outcomes, such as refusal and condom use self-efficacy, attitudes toward birth control and condoms, and perceived norms.”

FLASH is intended to address student behaviors and attitudes, according to the evaluators.

“The primary strategy used in the FLASH curriculum for preventing teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and sexual violence is to address student behaviors and attitudes,” according to an evaluation abstract prepared for the Office of Adolescent Health, dated 2017.

“To this end, FLASH uses a harm reduction and behavior change framework, implements best practices as outlined in the research on effective programs, addresses risk and protective factors for program goals, and rests on the theory of planned behavior,” the evaluation abstract continued.

On its website, King County touts the curriculum’s effectiveness.

“High School FLASH, 3rd edition has been rigorously evaluated and found to be an effective, proven program at reducing unintended pregnancy and STDs among teens,” King County’s website reads. “The evaluation of High School FLASH was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and was conducted by ETR Associates, an independent outside evaluator.”

The Department of Health and Human Services provided the grant to King County to evaluate the program as part of the Teenage Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program which gives grants to public and private entities.

The goal of the program is to “replicate effective teen pregnancy prevention program models that have been shown to be effective through rigorous evaluation” and “develop and test additional models and innovative strategies to prevent teen pregnancy through research and demonstration projects.”

The TPP program costs taxpayers almost $88 million in 2022, down from over $94 million in 2019. Since 2008, the TPP program has cost almost $1 billion.

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