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Your Grades On Drugs

For many students, high school represents some of the most exciting and challenging years of their young lives. Teens find themselves taking on the responsibility and accountability that go hand in hand with greater levels of personal freedom. With so much on the line during these formative years, it can be difficult for students to maintain focus on academic performance. Yet many students bring additional challenges upon themselves through the use of drugs and alcohol, and all too often their grades suffer as a result.

A 2009 study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked both top and bottom performing students about their levels of lifetime drug use. Time and again, higher percentages of the failing students reported greater levels of drug use.

Usage rates for heroin and methamphetamine are relatively similar for failing students. More than two-thirds of students had not tried either drug. For those who had, the most negatively impacted were those who indicated they’ve used either drug 40 or more times. This group represented 10.34–11.69 percent of the failing population.

Although the use of heroin and methamphetamine can obviously have a detrimental impact on student performance, the use of any drugs of abuse by students is problematic: Substance use has been found to “hijack” the neurological reward pathways in the brain, potentially making academic pursuits less meaningful to students. This means that failing students using drugs are less likely to be motivated to improve their grades, despite the negative scholastic consequences.

Cocaine use was slightly more common among the surveyed teens. Still, an overwhelming 96.48 percent of teens receiving A’s never touched the stuff. Here, we see growth of the proportion of drug-using “F” students; most notably in the one-time use category, which increased by about 80 percent.

Even occasional use of substances over a student’s academic career can lead to disinterest in school. This shift in attitude can cause drug-using students to start associating more with their drug-using peers and drift away from more academically focused students, further perpetuating the problem.

When the CDC surveyed students about ecstasy use, the numbers were again very similar to what “A” and “F” students reported for cocaine, meth, and heroin. This could possibly indicate that students in the failing group experimented with a variety of these harder drugs in general. This experimentation can be very detrimental to adolescent development, leading to issues such as trouble with concentration and regular sleep patterns – difficulties that might make academic performance even worse.

The first statistically significant increase in the study involves the illicit use of prescription drugs. This type of drug abuse was 3.4 times more common in “A” students than their top-of-the-class, ecstasy-using peers. When looking at prescription drugs alone, more than half of “F” students also used them. Almost twice as many failing students met the heaviest usage criteria for illicit prescription drugs when compared to ecstasy. Prescription drugs are often more available than illegal “street” drugs, as students report they often get them from from friends and relatives with medical prescriptions.

Marijuana use was far more common in this student group than any other drug. For the first time, we see the majority of the failing group indicating they’ve tried the drug. Over a third of the “F” students said they had used marijuana 100 or more times. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2014 Monitoring the Future survey reveals that most teen drug use is on the decline while marijuana use is steady, with most teens admitting they don’t see the harm in occasional consumption.

There’s a distinct, although perhaps unsurprising divide between the two GPA groups in terms of their marijuana use. Yet, despite the impressive comparison (nearly 37.8% of failing students having 100+ incidences of marijuana use vs. 4.3% of ‘A’ students), one shouldn’t jump to draw causative conclusions. There are a number of variables that help to create poor performance situations in school and, conversely, a number of factors that contribute to the start of drug use behavior. This much is clear: marijuana use, while frequently thought of as a benign pastime, can become problematic for some – including high school students. If you’re concerned that marijuana or any substance use is having a decidedly negative effect on your life, or if you’re a parent of an adolescent or teen whom you suspect is struggling with alcohol or drugs, help is available – call 1-888-259-0133 to find out more about effective substance abuse treatment options .

There is a clear change in alcohol usage habits between students across the grade scale. As the grades become worse, the distribution of alcohol consumption makes a clear shift toward the higher end of the scale. The percentage of students represented by the highest level of alcohol consumption was over five times higher for failing students than “A” students. Studies have shown that students who drink heavily are at risk for significant setbacks in finishing high school, though they might go back and earn their GED by age 25.

A very large percentage of students indicated that they have not participated in binge drinking within the past 30 days. For those who did, the largest percentage is seen in students with failing grades. Researchers have found that more frequent binge drinking predicted a greater likelihood of the student receiving a GED rather than a high school diploma – or, in other words, a lower likelihood of graduating on time or meeting the requirements for a normal high school diploma.


While it’s not entirely clear from the data what, if any, impact drugs had on the grades of the surveyed students, the recurring theme of failing students having higher rates of drug use than their successful counterparts is alarming. In fact, studies have shown that substance use is a significant factor in high school dropout rates, and—at any age level—constitutes a nationwide crisis with profound social and economic consequences.

The common substances of abuse—from alcohol to heroin—can have significant side effects. These most obviously manifest as risks to health, and can impact both teens and adults alike. Abusing drugs at a young age, however, can bring about a host of particularly undesirable outcomes. These not only have the potential to hinder school performance, but can also stifle cognitive and social development – resounding effects that may be felt through adulthood, significantly reducing an individual’s long-term quality of life.

If you are a parent of a teenager in trouble, or are a teen yourself struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction (or know someone who is), reaching out for help can be life changing. provides information for parents and teens alike about substance use, behavioral health and effective treatment options. Visit our site, or call to be placed in touch with a support specialist – have your questions about addiction treatment confidentially answered 24 hours a day.


We accessed data from the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which asked students about their grades as well as drug use. Using this data we compared their reported grades with the drug use they reported. We excluded data from other years as they did not include student’s grades in subsequent Youth Risk Behavior Surveys. Both grades and drug use are self-reported by the students who took the survey.


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