Student substance abuse: bad news for teachers’ test score-based evaluations

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “illicit drug use among teenagers has continued at large rates, largely due to the popularity of marijuana.”  According to the Institute’s statistics,

Marijuana use by adolescents declined from the late 1990s until the mid-to-late 2000s, but has been on the increase since then. In 2012, 6.5 percent of 8th graders, 17.0 percent of 10th graders, and 22.9 percent of 12th graders used marijuana in the past month—an increase among 10th and 12th graders from 14.2 percent, and 18.8 percent in 2007. Daily use has also increased; 6.5 percent of 12th graders now use marijuana every day, compared to 5.1 percent in the 2007.

Well-documented are the effects marijuana has on the developing brain.  According to John Knight, MD, Senior Associate in Medicine and Associate in Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard University Medical School, the earlier a child starts smoking marijuana, the earlier “potential changes to brain structure and function” occur.

Further, Dr. Mona Potter, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at The Landing/Dual Diagnosis Adolescent Residential Treatment Unit at McLean Hospital in Boston, says:

“While there is conflicting information related to cannabis’ long-term neurocognitive effects, there is no debate that adolescence is a very vulnerable time to put extraneous substances into the brain. While some adolescents report being able to use marijuana without a major negative impact, they are not always aware of the deficits in learning and memory related to their use.”

But marijuana isn’t the only drugs to which teens have access.  One of the newest trends in adolescent drug abuse involves use of a drug teens refer to as “Molly,” a powder form of MDMA–a component of ecstasy.  Doctors and substance abuse counselors warn that use of this drug, which is highly addictive, is on the rise–particularly because it’s accessible: it’s cheaper than marijuana, and it’s becoming so commonplace that teens generally have no trouble getting their hands on it. Experts warn that it can cause “permanent and irreversible damage to [adolescents’] brains, hearts, kidneys, and other vital organs.”

And then there’s alcohol, which  has a similar–and well-documented–effect on an adolescent’s brain.  

Studies conducted over the last eight years by federally financed researchers in San Diego, for example, found that alcoholic teenagers performed poorly on tests of verbal and nonverbal memory, attention focusing and exercising spatial skills like those required to read a map or assemble a precut bookcase.

It’s no secret that teens have been experimenting with illegal substances for decades, but the movement to tie teachers’ evaluations to the test scores of their students is relatively new.  Which unfortunate teachers will be assigned the students who have recently fallen into depths of substance abuse–and who, by doing so, have literally altered their brain chemistry and affected their ability to focus and to learn–and to perform well on or care about a standardized test?  

What’s even more concerning is that in a time of rising concerns about teen substance abuse and decreased funding for public schools, after-school programs that might otherwise keep kids out of trouble and substance abuse counselors are being cut.

Where does substance abuse within the context of today’s educational system leave kids?  In a bad place with a decreasing number of resources for support.  And where does it leave teachers?  In an equally bad place: one in which they’re at the mercy of reformers, who refuse to consider the effects extraneous factors (drug abuse, poverty, home life) have on students’ standardized test performance.



Filed under Reform, Testing

4 responses to “Student substance abuse: bad news for teachers’ test score-based evaluations

  1. RetiringTeacher

    I know that the popular and perhaps politically correct position these days is to be in favor of legalizing marijuana. Despite all the problems with the drug war, with the profiling and discrimination associated with drug arrests, and with the overburdening of law enforcement and overcrowding of prisons, I think it is a mistake to legalize this drug. As a former high school teacher, I have seen how pot users lose their academic motivation; the smartest students often turn into underachievers. Not to mention that legitimizing pot use will most likely increase real drug addiction in our culture. Kids who smoke pot discount it as a “gateway” drug. For some it is not, but for others it certainly is. And no one, no one at all, seems to discuss how all this will affect student achievement and thereby teacher evaluation. Thank you for your post.

  2. EK

    The issue of the factor of substance abuse is one that no one yet has tapped into in the debates around high-stakes tests, VAM modeling and teacher evaluations. Yet, your argument is a common sense one.
    This is parallel to the issue of cellphones and other personal electronics in the classroom. Substance abuse or electronic distractions degrade the attentiveness of a student and logically will degrade students’ performance on standardized tests.
    These distractions particularly kick in during the middle school and high school years. Thus they pose particular risks to the careers of teachers of students in those grades.
    By contrast, other countries, particularly the ones scoring very well in the international comparison tests, the PISA and TIMSS tests, do not evaluate their teachers by students test scores. See “International Studies of Teacher Evaluation: Student Tests Seldom Cited, Portfolios Carry More Weight”
    I’ll pass along word of your case that substance abuse poses risks to teachers’ test-based evaluations at

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