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The Downside of Student Competition

Competition is supposed to bring out the best in students by making them take their studies more seriously. But there is a downside that deserves far greater attention. It involves the use of prescription stimulants to give them an edge ("Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill," The New York Times, Jun. 10).

Driven to excel in the college admissions game, students are turning to such drugs as Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin and Focalin to get a leg up on tests. It's impossible to know with certainty how prevalent the practice is, but the New York Times estimates that between 15 and 40 percent of students in schools with high academic standards are involved.

The abuse of these drugs is extremely disturbing. They have caused addiction and even death in ways not unlike heroin. But they also raise the question of cheating. Just as anabolic steroids have been used by athletes to boost their performance, stimulants in their various forms are being used by students to shine on high-stakes tests.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Campbell's Law: The more any quantitative indicator is used for decision making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor. Unless the law is repealed, I expect to see further evidence in the years ahead. I'm pessimistic because parents have bought into the competition frenzy. Why would students not be affected?

How did things get so bad? I place heavy blame on the notion that college is for everyone. This is an absurdity, but it is taken on faith. Even if a college degree is a union card for a successful future, few parents take time to ask whether the price paid for getting into a marquee name school is worth it. If parents lose a child, can they ever live with themselves?

I keep coming back to a book written in 1963 by John Keats. In The Sheepskin Psychosis, he wrote that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. It is not an absolute determinant. Perhaps if more parents imbued their children with this axiom, there would be fewer tragedies. I don't minimize the role that peer pressure plays, but students can resist if parents have done their job.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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