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Children's Health Council

Can Greater Academic Demands Lead to Less Risky Behavior in Teenagers?

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June 5, 2018, News

Strengthening high school graduation requirements in math and science could curb youth drinking, with no increase in cigarette or marijuana use, a new study suggests.

The researchers, economist Ben Cowan and economics Ph.D. candidate Zhuang Hao, found that for each additional math or science course that high school students were required to take, the probability that students drank or binge drank (more than five drinks in a sitting) decreased by 1.6 percent.

The populations most affected by the more stringent high school grad requirements were males and students of color. Cowan said most states boosted graduation requirements in the 1990s and later, especially in math and science, and he speculates that nonwhite students by and large attended the schools that increased requirements. White students likely already attended schools with above average requirements.

The two researchers analyzed data on more than 100,000 students from 47 states. Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa were omitted from the study because they did not participate in all the surveys from which the numbers were collected. The data was taken from the Digest of Education Statistics which reports the minimum math and science credits required for graduation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The researchers also used data from each state’s department of education and from national data for the years 1993 to 2011 from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

Why does a rigorous curriculum result in students drinking less? “We speculate that the reason has to do with the change in the way students use their time,” economist Ben Cowan told Education Week.

Another reason for the decrease in drinking, suggests Cowan, is that students who are taking more math and science courses see a future rich with possibilities. They may see themselves getting a job in a STEM field and earning a good salary. A view toward the future might provide the deterrence to drinking.

The link the authors found is correlational, not necessarily causal. Cowan stressed that the data he and Hao used don’t enable them to pinpoint an exact reason for the relationship between curriculum rigor and drinking. Further study would have to be done.

Read the full article online in Education Week. The study abstract is available here.

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