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June 11, 2012 12:00 PM Magic Pills

By Daniel Luzer

Adderall

The New York Times this weekend ran one of those creepy competitive high school stories, concentrating this time on the drugs students use to get better grades and higher SAT scores.

What’s going to happen next? Realistically, pundits and educators can talk forever about the adverse health consequences of Adderall and other neuroenhancing drugs, but there’s no way this is going to abate as long as college admissions remains the same.

According to the article, by Alan Schwarz:

The drug was not cocaine or heroin, but Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that the boy said he and his friends routinely shared to study late into the night, focus during tests and ultimately get the grades worthy of their prestigious high school in an affluent suburb of New York City. The drug did more than just jolt them awake for the 8 a.m. SAT; it gave them a tunnel focus tailor-made for the marathon of tests long known to make or break college applications.
“Everyone in school either has a prescription or has a friend who does,” the boy said.
At high schools across the United States, pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants, according to interviews with students, parents and doctors. Pills that have been a staple in some college and graduate school circles are going from rare to routine in many academically competitive high schools, where teenagers say they get them from friends, buy them from student dealers or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors to get prescriptions.

The seriousness of this problem is hard to determine. The article suggests that perhaps between 15 and 40 percent of students in some competitive high schools might be using prescription stimulants to study. “The number of prescriptions for A.D.H.D. medications dispensed for young people ages 10 to 19 has risen 26 percent since 2007, to almost 21 million yearly,” Schwarz writes. But we don’t really know how many high school students take stimulants to study, and we certainly have no idea how many of them don’t really have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition with no objective measures for identification and one that’s said to be wildly overdiagnosed.

Now, of course, ultimately this is terrible. It surely can’t be good for students’ intellectual development to associate learning with taking speed. The long-term effects of neuroenhancing drugs are also unknown, but these are, after all, amphetamines.

Some schools are trying to address this issue. Schwarz:

Douglas Young, a spokesman for the Lower Merion School District outside Philadelphia, said… “It’s time for a serious wake-up call. Straight A’s and high SAT scores look great on paper, but they aren’t reflective measures of a student’s health and well-being. We need to better understand the pressures and temptations, and ultimately we need to embrace new definitions of student success.”

Good luck with that.

The problem is that these drugs work. Stimulants allow students to concentrate. It’s not going to take some high school student who isn’t that smart and make him appear brilliant. If he doesn’t understand the information stimulants aren’t going to make it look like he does. But if he knows, the drugs can help him process information a lot faster and ignore distracting details. How can we argue against that?

Targeted use of amphetamines can help a high school student earn maybe 100 points on the SATs. That doesn’t really indicate that he’s much smarter, but getting 100 more points on the SAT will fundamentally change which colleges he has the option of attending. That’s why students take these pills.

When I was in high school in the late 90s I had only the foggiest notion of stimulants that some students used to concentrate. But if someone had provided me with drug that offered an easy, legal way to study harder and concentrate better on standardized tests, I would have taken it, in second. That’s why I took neuroenhancing drugs occasionally in college. Why not? There were no significant adverse consequences.

The only way we’re going to “embrace new definitions of student success” is if college admissions operate differently. High school health professionals can point out that there are probably long-term health consequences to these drugs. They can say that the use of such stimulants gives unfair advantages to affluent students. But none of this matters to kids, because if they take these drugs they can get higher grades and scores and go to better colleges. Why refuse that opportunity?

As long as colleges keep concentrating so much on grades and standardized tests (which makes a lot of sense from their perspective), this is only going to get worse. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • buddy66 on June 11, 2012 7:31 PM:

    I recall taking amphetamines during finals week -- fifty years ago. It's no new thing.

  • Anonymous on June 12, 2012 2:14 AM:

    I am nowhere near as old as 'buddy66', but I have had teachers, professors, and even a college president who have talked about the widespread use of amphetamines for studying many years ago. And that stuff was more potent than the ADD drugs in use today. It's not a new thing at all.

    More importantly, even if one believes the unlikely account that Adderall can boost SAT scores by a large margin, why should anyone care beyond the potential adverse effects of the drug itself? The purpose of the SAT is to measure accumulated knowledge and cognitive skills, not to test the ability to focus. If someone can take an ADD drug and seriously enhance his score, then he should probably be on the drug full-time. Either that, or the test is poorly designed for the average human attention span. It makes no sense at all to complain about over-diagnosing ADD and at the same time complain that ADD drugs make people better at doing something that society demands of us.