Student drug testing not effective in reducing drug use
ARBOR, Mich.Drug testing of students in schools does not deter
drug use, University of Michigan researchers have concluded, based
on a large, multi-year national sample of the nation's high
schools and middle schools.
The findings were reported recently in the Journal
of School Health. The research challenges the premise that has been
central to the rationale for schools adopting a drug testing policy.
The contention that testing is a deterrent to drug use also was
an important consideration in a recent split decision by the United
States Supreme Court that upheld the constitutionality of drug testing
of students as a condition of participating in extracurricular activities.
The authors looked at the combined data from surveys
done in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001, representing information from
722 secondary schools from across the nation, including 497 high
schools and 225 middle schools. Questionnaires were administered
to one school administrator (usually the principal) in each of these
schools to determine, among other things, the drug testing policies
of the school.
Self-administered questionnaires were also given
to students in one grade in each school (8th, 10th, or 12th grade),
which determined whether and what drugs they might be using.
The survey represents the only large or nationally
representative samples of schools that have ever been used to assess
the effectiveness of drug testing policy.
The Effects of Testing
At each grade level studied8, 10, and 12the investigators
found virtually identical rates of drug use in the schools that
have drug testing and the schools that do not. For example, in 12th
grade, 36percent of those in non-testing schools reported having
used marijuana in the twelve months prior to the survey, versus
37 percent in the schools that did test. The measures of drug use
examined were the prevalence and frequency of use of marijuana in
the prior twelve months and the prevalence and frequency of use
of illicit drugs other than marijuana over the same period. (Prevalence
refers to the percent reporting any use in the 12-month period.)
Additional analyses focusing on specific groups
of students also were conducted. In those high schools that tested
athletes, use by male athletes of marijuana (or of any other illicit
drugs) was not significantly different from use among male athletes
in the great majority of high schools that do not test their athletes.
(There were not sufficient numbers of female athletes available
to conduct parallel analyses for them.)
The investigators even looked separately at established
marijuana users, defined as those students reporting use of marijuana
on twenty or more occasions in their lifetime, to see if any testing
effects might be visible among heavier users. But even in this group,
the rates of use of marijuana and other drugs in the prior year
were virtually identical in schools that conduct drug tests compared
with those that do not. Some 94percent of both groups indicated
using marijuana in the prior twelve months.
Subsequent to the submission of the journal article,
the authors conducted additional analyses in which data from the
2002 national sample were added to those already reported for 1998-2001.
This added 169 schools, bringing the overall school sample to 891.
All of the findings from the earlier samples continued to hold in
the enlarged and updated sample. The investigators also looked specifically
at the possibility that random drug testing, in which the entire
student body is subject to being tested, might yield discernable
effects. Only seven schools out of the 891 surveyed reported having
such a policyall of them high schools. No statistically significant
difference was found in student use of marijuana or other illicit
drugs between these seven schools and the great majority of high
schools that did not have random testing. After controlling for
the types of students served and the grade level of the students
surveyed, there was virtually no difference in drug use rates between
those schools that had random testing and those that did not.
The authorsRyoko Yamaguchi, Lloyd D. Johnston,
and Patrick M. O'Malleyare all social scientists at
the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
"We think that one reason that so few schools
test their students for drugs is that is an expensive undertaking,"
comments Johnston. "Schools are very pressed for funds, and
I would say that the results of our investigation raise a serious
question of whether drug testing is a wise investment of their scarce
resources. It's also very controversial with a lot of parents
and students," he adds.
"The way that drug testing has been carried
out in the schools looks very unpromising. I have no doubt that
one could design a drug testing program that could deter teen drug
use, but at what monetary cost and at what cost in terms of intrusion
into the privacy of our young people?"
The researchers found that about 19 percent of
American secondary schools have some form of student drug testing.
The group of students most commonly tested are those identified
"for cause," that is, based on evidence or suspicion
that they had been using an illicit drug14 percent of all
secondary schools report this practice. Many fewer schools indicate
that they test for any other reason.
Athletes are the next most commonly tested group;
but only about 5 percent of schools indicate that they test athletes.
(In 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that the testing of athletes in
a given school district was constitutional. ) Students who volunteer
for testing are tested in just under 4 percent of the schools, as
are students that have been on school probation. Students participating
in extracurriculars other than athleticsthe subject of the
recent Supreme Court decisionare tested at present only in
about 2 percent of American secondary schools.
Public and private secondary schools are about
equally likely to use drug testing, but high schools are considerably
more likely than middle schools to do so. The size of the community
bears little relationship to whether or not schools test for drugs.
Schools in which the majority of students are African American or
in which the majority are Hispanic are no more likely to drug test
than those that are predominately white. If anything, they may be
slightly less likely to test.
The researchers surveyed the school administrators
under a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in support
of the Youth, Education, and Society (YES) study, an element in
the Foundation's Bridging the Gap Initiative. That initiative
is intended to examine the impact of policies, programs and practices
at the school, community, and state levels on substance use by young
Americans. Students from the same schools were surveyed as part
of The Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, funded by the National
Institute on Drug Abuse.
(Johnston is the principal investigator of both
the YES and MTF studies.)
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