Students involved in extracurricular activities and subject to in-school random drug testing reported less substance use than their peers in high schools that didn’t have drug-testing programs, according a federal evaluation of 4,700 students spread across seven states.
The study was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, and conducted by RMC Research Corporation in Portsmouth, N.H. and the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research. The researchers said it’s the largest and most rigorous examination of drug-testing programs to date.
Sixteen percent of students subject to drug testing in the study reported using substances covered by their district’s testing program in the past 30 days, compared to 22 percent of comparable students in schools without the program.
“We essentially found that students’ past drug use was significantly affected by the program,” Susanne N. James-Burdumy, an associate director of research for Mathematica Policy Research said, referring to students’ drug use in the 30 days prior to the surveys.
But the presence of the drug-testing program did not affect students’ reported intentions to use substances in the future, the study showed. In the schools with drug testing, 34 percent of students reported they “definitely will” or “probably will” use substances in the next 12 months. In schools without testing, 33 percent of students in schools reported they will definitely or probably use substances.
“When they’re reporting their past substance use, that period of time covers a period when students would have been subject to substance testing,” Ms. James-Burdumy said. “When they’re reporting future activities, they might not be subject to the testing program.”
The drug-testing policy appeared not to affect the way students felt about school. Previous smaller studies suggested that drug testing regimes could lead to students feeling disconnected from school, which is a risk factor for substance use in youth. This study also showed no reduction in the number of students participating in extracurricular activities.
However, in the one-year period of the study, there was no evidence of positive “spillover effects” from drug testing: students in drug-testing schools who were not subject to the policy because they didn’t play sports or weren’t involved in extracurriculars showed the same reported substance use as students in schools that did not conduct drug tests.
“We don’t actually know how long the drug-testing program needs to be running until you see spillover effects emerge,” Ms. James-Bardumy said. “It might have been possible we’d see [spillover effects] if we were to look over a longer period.”
The districts involved in the study were awarded grants in 2006 by the Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools to implement mandatory random-drug-testing programs in 36 high schools. The districts volunteered to be in the program and were located in Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Prior to the grant, the districts were conducting drug-abuse-prevention programs, but had no testing regimen in place.
While randomly selected “treatment” schools were assigned to implement a drug-testing program in the 2007-08 school year, the control groups were asked to delay the drug-testing program until the 2008-09 school year so that researchers could survey students on their reported drug use. Five of the seven districts included students in competitive extracurricular activities as well as student athletes; two districts limited testing to just student athletes.
Most schools informed students about the drug-testing program through pre-season athletic meetings, press releases to local media, and announcements over the school’s public address system. Five districts provided information at the beginning of the school year, while two districts provided information at the start of each sports season, in the winter, fall and spring.
Less Than Reported
Out of 3,476 drug tests given during the course of the study, 38 were positive—a lower result than the student-reported drug use, and an expected finding based on previous research studies, the study authors said. The discrepancy between the number of students who reported using drugs and the number of tests that turned up positive is due to variations in the number of students tested and the substances that the tests detect. Also, random testing is unlikely to pick up infrequent substance use.
Students were surveyed before and after the program started about their participation in school activities; their attitudes about school and knowledge of school policy; their attitudes about substance use and awareness of drug testing; and their report of substance use in the past month, in the past six months and over the course of their lifetime.
Researchers also examined whether students in schools with drug testing, perhaps because they were more aware of the consequences of substance use, might be underreporting such use. However, there were no differences between the treatment and control groups in students’ reports of how honest they were in completing the surveys or in how often students didn’t respond to particular questions.
The study also noted differences in reported substance use based on the substances for which schools tested. There were larger effects in districts that included alcohol and tobacco in their testing programs than in districts that did not include testing of those substances. Researchers could not say if more-expansive testing programs were the cause of the different results, or whether there were other factors at work in the districts that tested for more substances.
Marsha Silverberg, an acting associate commissioner for IES and the project officer for the study, said that the districts in the study reflected the characteristics of other districts that applied for grants from the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. However, compared with districts nationwide, the study group tended to be clustered in the South and larger than average.
“We wouldn’t want to imply that if suddenly the federal government did mandatory, random drug testing that we would see the same results,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week