Ethnicity, Drug User Status and Academic Performance

By Dozier, Arthur Lee; Barnes, Michael James | Adolescence, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Ethnicity, Drug User Status and Academic Performance

Dozier, Arthur Lee, Barnes, Michael James, Adolescence

While many studies have suggested the deleterious effect of drugs on the academic and social well-being of adolescents, few have used empirical data in drawing this conclusion. Research regarding the combination of ethnicity and drug user status on outcome variables such as academic and social functioning has been lacking. In addition, the present authors found that the empirical data on the relationship of race and drug use contradict what is commonly accepted, and often seem to be based on conjecture and stereotypes. The present study sought to investigate the impact of drug use and race on school performance, utilizing empirical data obtained retrospectively.

User Status

A review of studies contrasting teenage drug users and nonusers revealed some interesting yet unsurprising results. Marston, Jacobs, Singer, Widaman, and Little (1988) found that 68.8% of nonusers reported doing "better than most" or "extremely well" in school as compared with 37.9% of users. They also reported that nonusers were in better physical and mental health than were users. Indices included a measure of general health, happiness, sleeping habits, and suicide attempts. While their study provided useful information, unfortunately it relied on self-reported school performance.

Shannon, James, and Gansneder (1993) found that substance misuse was associated with a greater number of classes failed, more retentions, more placement in lower-ability groups, and more referrals to special services. With regard to social/emotional functioning, the authors also indicated that these substance abusers were more likely to have been suspended from school, referred to a psychologist, expelled from school, dropped from an athletic team, and to have attempted suicide, and less likely to be engaged in extracurricular activities. While the study did rely on objective and empirical data, neither achievement scores nor grades were used. In addition, no such associations (positive or negative) were offered for nonusers.

Hundleby (1985) investigated the drug use of outstanding performers among ninth graders from high schools in Ontario, Canada. Outstanding performers were defined as students whose self-ratings were highest in the areas of art, music, athletics, performing arts, writing, leadership, and school subjects. These students were more likely to be nonusers, and those who did use drugs were less likely to be high users. However, among nonusers the percentage of outstanding performers did not differ greatly from that of nonoutstanding performers.


Bachman, Wallace, Kurth, Johnston, and O'Malley (1991) examined drug use among the five major ethnic groups: Native Americans, whites, Hispanics, blacks, and Asian Americans. These authors presented data from nationally representative surveys contrasting the prevalence rates of illicit and licit drug use. Surveys conducted with high school seniors from 1976 to 1989 indicated the following patterns: Native Americans were the highest users of licit and illicit drugs, with the exception of cocaine. Whites were next highest. Asian Americans were lowest, while blacks were next lowest, with the exception of marijuana, with black males exhibiting the highest use. Hispanics were the intermediate group, with the exception of high cocaine use by males. The differences between groups were not attributable to background factors such as parents' education, rural/urban distinctions, family composition, and region.

Prendergast, Austin, Maton, and Baker (1989) studied the drug use patterns and problems of black and white adults and children. Among adolescents, alcohol and drug use were lower for blacks than whites. Consistent with the findings of Bachman et al. (1991), these authors indicated that national and school-based surveys have consistently shown that black youths have higher rates of abstinence from drinking, blacks who do use alcohol drink less and have lower levels of heavy drinking than do whites (black youths also have a lower percentage of light and heavy drinkers), and young blacks exhibit fewer social problems resulting from drinking than do white youths. …

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