Officials in states considering testing student-athletes for drug use say the initial results of a New Jersey program suggest that such policies might be an effective deterrent, but they caution against drawing strong conclusions this early.
None of the 150 student-athletes who were tested for use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs was found to be using those substances, according to the first round of testing under a program in New Jersey that is the first of its kind to be implemented statewide.
“This is a new field for people to be plowing,” said Kurt J. Gibson, an assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, based in Bloomington, which is considering establishing a similar policy. “The learning curve is steep.”
New Jersey officials themselves do not see the results as definitive, but rather as a first step toward testing the effectiveness of their policy.
“I don’t have an opinion of it as a success or a failure,” said Bob Baly, the assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, a Robbinsville-based group of 425 high schools that is overseeing the program. “It’s part of an education program [to promote] awareness. The testing is designed to deter students from taking these substances. We need to assess whether or not the results are a deterrent.”
The New Jersey program randomly tests high school athletes if they reach the state-playoff level at the end of each sports season. By the end of this school year, 500 students will have been screened.
“We usually expect about a one percent positive” result on steroid tests of this kind, said Frank Uryasz, the president of the National Center for Drug Free Sport, a Kansas City, Mo.-based organization that is coordinating the testing of the samples for the New Jersey program. “We always hope for a zero percent positive result because it tells us the program is working.”
Cost Is Factor
Other states—including Florida and Texas as well as Illinois—are looking for any signs that New Jersey’s policy is an effective deterrent.
Although the Illinois High School Association is working on drafting a drug-testing policy, it has not set any specific timetable for implementing it, according to Mr. Gibson.
Mr. Gibson, who consulted with Mr. Baly of New Jersey in developing the Illinois plan, said that it was beneficial to learn from a program that was already in place.
“Certainly, we’re going to have to address the same questions as they did,” Mr. Gibson said. “That’s not to say our plan will mirror theirs exactly when it’s done.”
One major obstacle to drug testing, for instance, is the cost. Mr. Baly said the New Jersey drug tests cost $175 per student, with the whole program running about $100,000 a year, half of which was funded by the state. The NJSIAA paid for the other half.
Some of the lessons Mr. Gibson has already learned from the New Jersey program include the importance of having students sign pledges not to use drugs and having parents sign a consent form for random testing; the attention needed to make sure that collected urine samples are kept accurate; and the value of having a medical-review officer to identify medical reasons for any positive samples.
However, while New Jersey tests students at the state-playoff level, Illinois initially would probably only test athletes who have reached the state finals in their sports.
“It would be much easier to expand the program than to start so big and then try to bring it back in,” Mr. Gibson said.
Earlier this month, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, introduced a steroid-testing plan. As of last week, the bill had been referred to committee.
Like New Jersey’s plan, the Lone Star State would require all those participating in high school athletics to agree not to use illegal steroids and to submit to random testing.
But the Texas plan, if passed, would have a greater reach, according to Michael Wright, a spokesman for the bill’s only sponsor, Sen. Kyle L. Janek, a Republican. The University Interscholastic League, which oversees extracurricular activities in Texas, would randomly select 30 percent of school districts to each test at least 3 percent of their student-athletes. The testing would occur at various points during the sports seasons, not just when teams reached the playoffs, Mr. Wright said.
In the 2005-06 school year, 733,000 students participated in high school athletics in Texas, according to the UIL. Under the pending plan, that would mean about 6,600 students would be tested for steroids in one school year.
‘The Wrong Message’
Still, some other states are not eager to follow New Jersey’s example.
In West Virginia, Sen. Clark S. Barnes, a Republican, introduced a bill in January that would have required random tests of high school athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. Before the bill died in committee, Sen. Barnes had told the Charleston Gazette that he had based it on the New Jersey program. State officials have since commissioned a study to determine if a statewide drug-testing policy would be worthwhile.
“There’s an idea in the public eye that [drug testing] is a panacea,” said Michael Hayden, the executive director of the Parkersburg-based West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, which oversees high school extracurricular activities in the state and will participate in the study.
“It wasn’t something that we needed to jump into without any research, without any consideration” of all the issues involved, Mr. Hayden said.
The failed West Virginia bill “followed almost verbatim the New Jersey law,” Mr. Hayden said. “That is not, in my consideration, the direction we needed to follow.”
Mr. Hayden cited testing students only at the state-playoff level as a potential problem with New Jersey’s policy.
“Are you saying that because you reached the state championship, you must be involved [with steroids]?” he asked.
“That’s sending the wrong message.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as N.J. Steroid Testing Gets Attention in Other States