Students randomly tested for alcohol in middle school seem less likely to drink and use drugs during those middle grades, and they are less likely to drink when they get older, a six-year study of New Jersey students finds—although researchers caution that random drug testing isn’t a panacea for drug- and alcohol-use prevention.
The study tracked about 3,500 middle school students from the 2006-07 school year through this school year. Researchers at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Teaneck, N.J., and from the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey found that middle school students who had been tested at any point in 6th through 8th grades for drug and alcohol use didn’t follow one pattern typical of most high school students.
“Generally, we see a huge spike in drug and alcohol use around the junior year of high school. That’s when students get jobs, get cars, get money, and start having contact with older individuals who are more likely to use drugs,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson, and principal investigator for the study, in a press release this month. “Students who were tested for drugs at any point in middle school, though, don’t show nearly as big a spike [for alcohol use], and that reduction is a big deal.”
From the study:
Holding all else equal, the results here show that testing leads to a mean reduction of 6 points in the likelihood that a student will use alcohol in 8th grade, reducing the likelihood from about a 13 percent chance to a 7 percent chance. There is no question that this is a significant effect, and many studies have shown the benefit of delaying the incidence of first use of alcohol by a few years to be dramatic.
The effect of the drug testing on drug use wasn’t the same. “Students who had been tested showed much smaller increases in perceived and actual use of alcohol—but not drugs—year-to-year,” the study says.
While schools across the country have randomly tested students on athletic teams or other extracurricular activities for drugs, the New Jersey schools are part of a growing trend of testing any student for drug use (as allowed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2002).
The schools in this study required parent and student consent before testing.
Parents in one California district have opted for a similar program, although in that case, their children don’t get a say in the testing.
At the New Jersey schools, the effect of the drug and alcohol testing was limited—only kids who were tested were less likely to use drugs and alcohol later on. The effect didn’t spread to classmates who weren’t tested but knew their friends were being tested.
Researchers cautioned that those results might be because of the percentage of students at each middle school who were actually tested for drug and alcohol use. If more students were tested, the effect of the testing could be different, they said.
In addition, the researchers said any debate about the cost and benefit of this kind of “suspicionless” random drug testing has to focus on the benefit to the individual student being tested.
Drug testing aside, the study found that when parents talk to their kids about drugs and alcohol—the subject of public service announcements for years—it can have a profound effect on children.
Relative to students who don’t discuss the topic with their parents, researchers said, students who have regular discussions with their parents about drugs and alcohol are significantly less likely to use drugs and alcohol and less likely to want to do so.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.