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.”
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.