Lower Grades, Higher Risk?

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They’re archetypes of adolescence, familiar from film and TV. The straight-A student unwilling to compromise her able mind with drugs. The athlete who puts partying and performance on the field before studying. The slacker stoner who constantly cuts class. If these stereotypes are to be believed, illicit substances and academic success seem simply incompatible.

But are these classic high school narratives reflected in reality? If roughly half of American teens report using drugs at least once, it seems unlikely all strong students are staying completely sober. We decided to explore how teen drug use and academic performance really relate. To do so, we dug into data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a national survey of adolescent experiences with drugs, alcohol, and mental health challenges.

Our findings explore how top students compare to other high schoolers when it comes to drinking and drugs, sexual activity, and a range of other risk factors. Are teenagers across the country getting good grades and getting high simultaneously? Keep reading to find out.

Snapshot of Our Sample

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Before we delve into substance use and success in school, it may be helpful to define our sample of adolescents more clearly. Our analysis included data pertaining to over 11,000 students, whom we segmented into four categories based on their academic performance. Throughout this project, we’ll compare the behaviors of top students (the 4,260 who obtained “mostly A’s”) to that of students who earned “mostly B’s” and a combined group of students who earned “mostly C’s, D’s, and F’s.”

Race and Gender Grade Gaps

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Ethnicity and gender are inextricably entwined with our findings related to teenagers’ academic performance and substance use. Any full interpretation of our results will acknowledge these cultural influences.

When we explore the demographic composition of each category more specifically, we encounter evidence of persistent achievement gaps between ethnic groups. For example, nearly three-quarters of Asian or Asian-American high schoolers earned mostly A’s, a finding consistent with extensive research suggesting Asian youths outperform peers of other ethnicities on academic measures. Moreover, we see black or African-American and Latino or Hispanic students underrepresented in the “mostly A’s” category, a testament to the well-established achievement gap between children in these ethnic groups and their white counterparts (although racial and ethnic achievement gaps have been on a gradual decline since the 1970s).

Additionally, female youths were substantially more likely to report earning “mostly A’s” than their male peers. This gender achievement gap has been consistently observed across a vast array of high school settings. Although opinions differ as to its causes, some suggest adolescent males are more susceptible to social pressures that prevent achievement.

Academics and Experimentation

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When we compared academic performance to consumption of a range of drugs, foods, and drinks, our findings were overwhelming: Teenagers who earned mostly B’s or lower grades were more likely to use all illicit substances than A students. The gap was particularly apparent for some intoxicants. Students earning C’s or lower made up over half the users of synthetic marijuana, ecstasy, hallucinogens, and cocaine.
Even relatively innocent unhealthy choices were more common in the group with lower grades. They were more likely to drink sugary sodas and sports drinks than their high-achieving counterparts. Conversely, students who got mostly A’s were more likely to consume vegetables, salad, and breakfast – long heralded by parents as the most important meal of the day. These findings support a substantial body of research connecting improved nutrition to strong educational outcomes: Hunger is understandably detrimental to students’ focus.

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If drug use represents a perennial concern for teenagers’ parents, so does sexual activity. Here too, top students were much more likely to abstain, with almost half reporting they had never had intercourse before. Recent public health research has produced mixed conclusions about adolescent sexual activity on a national scale: While fewer teenagers are having sex, those who do are less likely to use condoms than teens 10 years ago. Historically speaking, however, rates of teen pregnancy remain at an all-time low.

Top Grades vs. Trauma?

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Not all risk factors for teens entail mind-altering substances or sexual activity: Those who got B’s or lower grades were much more likely to experience or inflict violence than their high-achieving cohort. Physical altercations were far more common among lower-performing high schoolers, who were more likely to have been in a fight or have been hit or abused by a partner. This group was also far more likely to have carried a gun or another weapon. These findings are especially concerning given recent research suggesting even ambient exposure to violence can cripple school performance.

Depression and Distraction

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In addition to a greater risk of potentially traumatic experiences, students with lower grades were more likely to report a range of mental health challenges. In keeping with the findings discussed above, they were more likely to contemplate suicide than high-performing peers but also to identify with a range of depression indicators. Bullying could prompt or exacerbate these negative feelings: Students with lower grades made up a slightly larger subset of the population reporting being bullied, and some health researchers attribute rising rates of teen suicide to digital bullying, theorizing that social media exposes vulnerable teens to constant attacks.

Lower-achieving students were substantially more likely to think of, plan, or attempt to commit suicide. Rates of adolescent suicide have undergone a troubling rise in recent years, becoming the second-leading cause of death among American teenagers. Conversely, students who earned mostly A’s were more likely to enjoy certain protective factors. These included participation in sports, which some researchers suggest may help students succeed by inculcating self-esteem and time management skills that aid them in their academic work.

Lower-performing students seemed more drawn to other screens as well, proving much more likely to watch TV daily. Interestingly, however, students who got mostly A’s had roughly similar video game habits as those who got B’s or lower grades. That finding comes at a time when researchers are re-evaluating the effects of gaming on academic performance. Some recent studies have actually suggested video games can provide a range of intellectual and social benefits to youths who play them, especially if the game in question entails collaborating with other players.

Learning to Live Well

Our findings confirm that high-achieving students are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol but leave us with unsettling insights regarding the complex lives of American teenagers. No grading scale can account for the impact of abuse or other traumatic experiences upon a high school student’s performance. Likewise, no academic intervention will banish feelings of despair and self-loathing. As we consider adolescents’ well-being, we must resist the temptation to rely on simple metrics to judge their character or capabilities. As teenagers move through the uncertainty characteristic of their age, concerned adults must seek to understand before we admonish.

If a young person you love is currently abusing substances, the difficulty and complexity of their experience are likely quite evident to their friends and family. But however clear the danger of their behaviors may be, appropriate solutions are often much less obvious. At this crucial stage of development, which form of treatment will best equip teenagers for success in the long run? At ProjectKnow, our team of treatment experts specializes in providing personalized recommendations for effective and ethical care. To learn more about your options, explore our resources related to teen substance use today.

Methodology

All data were obtained from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. We examined the records of 11,232 students, excluding any who didn’t enter an answer of “mostly A’s,” “mostly B’s,” “mostly C’s,” “mostly D’s,” or “mostly F’s” on a question that asked about typical school grades. For demographic comparisons, we looked at 5,770 females, 5,378 males, and 84 students whose records were listed as “missing.” The race/ethnicity comparison was generated from records of 93 American Indian/Alaska Native students, 540 Asian or Asian-American students, 1,801 black or African-American students, 2,966 Hispanic or Latino students, 4,903 white students, and 93 students listed as Native Hawaiian or “Other.” Demographic categories and language were taken directly from the YRBS. To calculate likelihood tables, we split the students into groups of earning “mostly A’s,” “mostly B’s,” and “mostly C’s, D’s, and F’s.” For most comparisons, we looked only at students who engaged in a given behavior during the period outlined by the question and excluded students who abstained.

Sources

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Help us spread the word about high school students’ experiences with illicit substances and other personal struggles they so often encounter. If you’d like to use our content on your own website or social media, you’re free to do so for noncommercial purposes. Simply link back to this page when you do to attribute us properly.

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