Research conducted with over 940 high school students in two nationally representative surveys finds that male students in high schools that conduct student drug testing report no less recent use of alcohol, marijuana, or cigarettes than male students in schools without drug testing. Although there was evidence of effectiveness for female students, this only occurred in schools that have good social climates, where the students and adults respect each other and the rules of the school are clear and enforced fairly (see Figure below).
The research, based on the National Annenberg Survey of Youth conducted by a team of researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, involved confidential telephone interviews with high school students across the U.S. in 2007 and 2008. The study was recently published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
“This study sends a cautionary note to the estimated 20% or more of high schools that have joined the drug testing bandwagon,” noted study co-author Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent and Health Communication Institutes of APPC. “We find little evidence that this approach to minimizing teen drug use is having the deterrent effect its proponents claim. And only in schools that have a very good school climate, reported by about a third of students, does this intervention exert a protective influence on adolescent girls. Schools that have joined the rush to implement testing should ask themselves whether this strategy has been oversold.”
Student drug testing has been a controversial issue with public health and civil liberty organizations opposed to its use. However, two Supreme Court decisions have supported the practice if it is done in the interests of screening students for sports or for other extracurricular activities. The Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the Department of Education (http://www2.ed.gov/programs/drugtesting/index.html) continues to encourage schools to adopt drug testing. The present study found that 27% of students reported that their schools engaged in the practice.
Previous research has not found much evidence in support of drug testing. One study actually found that it reduced students’ beliefs in the efficacy of the program. The present study’s findings show that if it works at all, it is for female students in schools with good climates. However, as seen in the Figure below, female students in schools with bad climates that also test students for drugs may actually use drugs more than those in comparable schools without drug testing. This suggests that drug testing may actually be counterproductive in those schools.