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U.S. Plans Controlled Evaluation of Student Drug Testing

By Christina A. Samuels — June 06, 2006 3 min read
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The Department of Education has proposed the first large-scale national evaluation of the effectiveness of student drug testing.

The Bush administration, which has heavily promoted drug testing of students with grants and defended the practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, said a controlled experiment would help resolve questions about the efficacy of such efforts.

In the May 22 issue of the Federal Register, the Education Department says several recent studies have shown the “potential effectiveness” of student drug testing, but “none … has employed a randomized control trial, the type of research design needed to make a valid determination of whether mandatory random drug testing deters drug use.”

Since 2003, the department has awarded grants to school districts to help implement programs of random drug testing for students in grades 6-12. About $9.8 million has been awarded since then to 63 districts and drug-abuse-prevention agencies for testing, said Jo Ann Webb, an Education Department spokeswoman.

“We know that drug testing works in the workplace,” said Brian Blake, a special assistant to the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “This is a chance to do a national, controlled study” at the school level, he said.

Districts receiving grants would have to agree to have a group of students participate in a series of anonymous surveys about substance abuse. The surveys would be handled by an independent contractor, not school employees.

Participating districts would also have to agree to have half their high schools start testing in the first year of the grant program, after the first survey is conducted in spring 2007. The other half would start testing about a year later, after a spring 2008 survey. Individual results of student drug tests would not be disclosed to law-enforcement authorities.

The pool of students tested in schools would include athletes and students in other competitive extracurricular school activities. The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that schools could randomly test student-athletes without the need for individual suspicion that students tested were in fact using drugs. In 2002, the court upheld a district’s program of testing students who participate in competitive extracurricular activities, not only athletes but also members of the band, the debate team, and Future Farmers of America.

Testing for ‘Cause’

Drug testing in schools has been controversial. In 2003, researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor reported that testing did not appear to deter use of illegal drugs. The data were collected from 1998 through 2001 from 722 public and private schools across the country. The rates of drug use in schools that had testing policies were virtually identical to those of schools that did not test, according to the researchers, who are based at the university’s Institute for Social Research.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based organization that opposes student drug testing, says that such testing is a misuse of limited funds and could drive students away from extracurricular activities.

“We’re advocating that we need to be spending our money and limited resources in educating young people, and not putting them under this surveillance program,” said Jennifer M. Kern, a research associate at the alliance.

However, Mr. Blake noted that most of the schools that were evaluated in the University of Michigan study did not have random drug-testing policies. Instead, students were most commonly tested “for cause”—when a school staff member suspected that a student was under the influence of an illegal substance.

According to the Michigan researchers, 19 percent of public and private middle schools and high schools nationally were testing students for drugs; 14 percent were tested only when they had reason to suspect drug use.

The lack of data specific to random drug testing of students means its effectiveness is still an open question, Mr. Blake said.

Regina Wainwright, who oversees student-drug-testing programs for the 32,000-student Chandler, Ariz., school district near Phoenix, said she believes the federally funded program has been positive, even though it has only been in her district since January.

The district, which has three high schools, plans to test at least 25 percent of a pool of 4,000 eligible students, including athletes, cheerleaders, band members, and speech- and debate-team members. It received a grant from the Education Department for $780,000 to conduct the testing, which the district would not be able to afford otherwise, Ms. Wainwright said.

The Education Department is accepting comments on the evaluation-program proposal. The deadline is June 21.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Plans Controlled Evaluation of Student Drug Testing

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