You knew this was coming

No surprise here: stimulants improve your score on standardized tests. Kids taking the SATs and the LSATs have started to figure that out.

The front page of today’s Wall Street Journal reports a trend toward the use of prescription stimulants to improve scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and LSAT. Given the stakes, and the easy availability of stimulants due to the upsurge in diagnosis and treatment of attention deficits, this is hardly a surprise.

Once the trend is established, it becomes self-reinforcing. If one’s competitors are doping, not doping means losing out. (The story itself is therefore part of the trend; as an editor, I might have thought twice about running it.)

Some of the details are fascinating. I especially liked the kid who, in the scientific spirit, took practice exams in both stimulated and non-stimulated states before concluding that the stimulants really helped. Note that such an approach also avoids some of the dangers of competing for real in a completely novel state; another student reports having been caught by one of the side-effects of stimulant use, spending the entire exam period fascinated with the texture of the pencil and the paper.

What’s depressing is that no one interviewed — neither students nor parents — said that using drugs to get an edge on an exam was effective but illegal and dishonest; one student reported doubts, but the others had found ways to put their consciences to sleep.

The Educational Testing Service is clueless as usual, expressing the pious hope that students won’t do what they need to do to succeed in the set of tasks that ETS has made the gateway to professional-class success but having nothing else to offer.

Fortunately, unlike sports doping, which needs to be done persistently in ways that are bad for the organism, taking a few doses of stimulant isn’t going to do anyone much harm, except for those who either like the effects and start taking stimulants for pleasure or those who start to use stimulants on a regular basis to get studying or work done. They’re at risk for developing substance abuse, and long-term high-dose stimulant consumption can get pretty hideous.

Stimulant use to cheat on exams is just the first hint of a much larger problem. Cognitive enhancers are coming to the marketplace. They’re likely to have some bad side effects. If you’re dealing with someone whose alternative is dementia, the side effects are worth putting up with. But in a competitive world, we’re going to need rules about their use among healthy folks. So far, no one that I’ve seen has even started to think about that 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: