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Study: Middle school drug testing shows unexpected effects

April 15, 2013
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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A study has concluded that random drug testing policies in some New Jersey middle schools are positively affecting the likelihood that students will use substances, but not for the reasons researchers suspected before conducting the analysis.

Some mechanisms that researchers expected to be at work included that the threat of testing positive would deter these youths from using, or that the overall culture of the schools where testing was applied would become less accepting of substance use. Yet those effects did not play out in the research results, as the study found that the effect of the testing policy was felt only among the individual students who were randomly tested, not for the school as a whole.

Moreover, while it had been hypothesized that enactment of a random testing policy would generate more conversations about drugs between the school’s students and their parents, the study actually found that parents of students in schools with random testing were less likely to have these conversations with their children.

“Some saw testing as a substitute for these conversations,” says Dan Cassino, an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University who specializes in survey research. “The thought was, ‘The school’s going to do this for me.’”

At the comparatively few middle schools in New Jersey that have launched random drug testing policies in recent years, parents are asked voluntarily to opt in to the program; Cassino says these testing programs have become most prevalent in predominantly white, suburban school environments.


The study, employing a cohort panel design and conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson in conjunction with the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, compared responses to a questionnaire from students at schools with random testing and schools where testing is conducted on a much more limited basis. The questionnaire was given to more than 3,500 students over a seven-year period and evaluated attitudes toward substance use, perceived repercussions from use, family communication about use, and perceptions of use among peers.

The study found that while conversations with parents about substance use do drive down actual rates of use, students in schools where random testing takes place are no more likely than students in the other schools to report having these conversations.

It also was found that while the random testing programs have an informational effect in influencing perceptions of peer drug use, the effect is not seen throughout the school or even among all students who are enrolled in the testing program. Rather, it appears to come into play only for those students who actually get tested.

In essence, the study found that the potential of getting tested did not have a deterrent effect on students’ decision about whether to use substances. Cassino says that probably should not be considered a surprise. “That’s not the way kids’ brains work,” he says. “They’re not necessarily going to avoid doing something on Saturday because they think they might get caught on Monday.”

The actual act of being tested appeared to have the most prominent effect, in terms of reducing the desirability of using and the actual levels of use. Several possible explanations were given for the mechanism that might be at work here, including that being tested might lead the student to place drug use in more of a medical context and therefore to see it as more risky.