Is test-doping cheating?

Yes. It reduces the validity of the test, and puts test-takers at risk of developing substance abuse.

My email inbox has been full of arguments about my post calling the practice of taking stimulants to improve one’s scores on the SAT and LSAT (and presumably the MCAT and GMAT) “dishonest” and likening it to doping in sports competition. The objections fell into two categories: some asking why doping was cheating, and others arguing that “life isn’t a sporting event” and that the category therefore wasn’t applicable.

Second things first: No, life isn’t a sporting event. But test-taking is part of a competitive process where the (astonishingly valuable) prizes are the small number of places at the top colleges and professional schools. (Arguably, where you go to college, within the range likely to be relevant here, matters more socially than it does professionally. But where you go to law school or business school matters enormously. Moreover, with more and more places using scholarship awards to compete for top students, there are immediate financial advantages to scoring better than your competitors.)

In any competitive process, an advantage for one competitor is a disadvantage for others. So the question is what counts as an “unfair” advantage. The answer isn’t obvious.

In general, though, we expect people to obey the law. Breaking the law for competitive advantage seems to me to fit pretty squarely into the category of cheating.

But why, one might ask, should there be such a law? Using a stimulant once or a few times isn’t harmful. If some students want to obtain a competitive edge by studying, others by popping Ritalin, and still others by catching a good night’s sleep before the test, why shouldn’t the rules allow any or all of those strategies?

The simple answer is that the tests are supposed to measure aptitute for learning, and more generally aptitude for performing intellectually demanding tasks. That’s why the schools value the results. So the test results ought, ideally, to reflect something about the normal performance of the test-takers. Taking stimulants is a self-limiting process; you’re not creating mental energy out of nowhere, but merely borrowing it fairly stiff rates of interest. People can’t be stimulated all the time. So unstimulated performance is a better measure of average performance than is stimulated performance.

Finding the potential law student (for example) who responds most postively to psychostimulants, or tolerates the greatest dose of stimulant without becoming manic or compulsive, or who is most adept at figuring out what dose of stimulant will produce optimal performance on the LSAT, doesn’t have much to do with finding the potential law student most likely to have a good career in law school and as a lawyer. Therefore, the rules of the LSAT should forbid drug-taking as a test adjunct, as the criminal law already does.

If drug-assisted test-taking were legal, and if (as seems likely) the drugs can produce big gains for many students, then every student who really wants to compete will have to do the work of figuring out whether stimulents help him or her, which stimulant is optimal, and how much to use. Some of them are likely to find the stimulant experience rewarding, or discover that they work much better stimulated than not. All of those people will be at risk of developing stimulant abuse or dependency, which is a really bad risk to be at. Lots of methamphetamine addicts started out taking the drug to work, not to party. (I know one guy whose mind will never be the same after the methamphetamine habit he developed while using meth to write his Ph.D. thesis about drug abuse.)

To sum up: Allowing stimulant use in the context of competitive test-taking means, virtually, requiring it of those who want to win the competition. And requiring stimulant use is likely to have some bad results in the future lives of test-takers, in addition to reducing the validity of the tests as predictors of academic and professional performance. Since taking stimulants to boost test scores is illegal, and since making it legal would have bad results, I think it’s fair to call taking stimulants for that purpose “cheating,” and I’m disappointed that today’s test-takers by and large either don’t agree or don’t care. (Two emails informed me that test-doping is now very widespread and barely covert.)

In this respect, test-doping differs from the use of drugs producing long-acting cognitive enhancement. If I can make myself lastingly smarter or less forgetful by taking a pill, that’s no different from an employer’s point of view than if I can do the same thing with good eating or reading habits. The problem there is that the first generation of drugs is likely to have side-effects, and certain to have an unknown long-run side-effect profile. But once again taking those drugs is going to become virtually mandatory for those who are playing the winner-take-all games in the professions and in academia.

There’s probably not much we can do about that.

Even the test-doping problem may be virtually intractable. With millions of prescriptions out there, the milder stimulants are easy to get. ETS and its competitors could start requiring chemical tests, as the sports authorities do, but they’re going to confront the fact that some students have legitimate prescriptions for stimulants to treat ADHD or nacolepsy. Moreover, since the ADHD diagnosis is particularly hard to specify, it won’t be hard for aggressive and well-connected students to find a physician willing to write a prescription in time for the LSAT. The Americans with Disabilities Act would (or at least I hope it would) make it impossible for the test companies to put asterisks next to the test scores of students with prescriptions.

One option would be to take the time pressure off the tests, which would substantially — though not by any means completely — eliminate the stimulant advantage. Another would be for the schools to mount their own tests (perhaps on line), as a supplement to the uniform tests, reducing the gains to be made from doping for a single test that covers all schools.

I don’t have a clear idea about what to do. I am, however, pretty clear that there is a problem.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

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