Do ADHD drugs improve student test scores?

HARTFORD — Students around the country have taken drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) without a prescription to improve their test taking ability around SAT, ACT, or college exam time.

People with ADHD are hyperactive because the part of their brain that controls attention and focus is not active enough. Stimulant drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall, when given at a very carefully titrated dose, wake up this part of the brain and give people with ADHD the power to sit still and to focus. If the dose is too low they won’t get these benefits, if the dose is too high they can become impulsive, anxious, and irritable.

If a student has attention deficit disorder, correctly treating it with medication and behavioral therapy can improve test scores, at least for the first year or two. After that the data on success is sparse and contradictory. Anecdotal evidence from adolescent social media sites suggest no benefits or worse outcome when people without ADHD take stimulant drugs right before a test. Instead of focusing better, most students felt overconfident, restless, or irritable which negatively impacted their scores. People taking stimulants can stay awake and study for a longer time but the quality of the study time is actually diminished. You are trading quantity of studying for quality and we haven’t even talked about the severe risks of stimulant use.

People are buying or stealing these pills from their friends, family, or drug dealers and could result in arrest. It also means people cannot be sure that they are actually getting the drug they are paying for and that the drug is not adulterated with something else.

They don’t know what dose they can safely take without causing high blood pressure, a racing heartbeat, or even a panic attack, stroke, heart attack, or arrhythmia. While the risk of these things happening is low in an otherwise healthy person, it can still rarely happen but with devastating effects. Imagine trying to get a slightly higher score on a test and ending up paralyzed after a stroke or having a full blown panic attack and fleeing from the building.

Stimulants can cause some people to have a feeling of increased energy, vitality, and euphoria which can lead to addiction. This risk is magnified because after the stimulant effects wear off, it causes a depressant effect for a day or two. Stimulants borrow the joy from the next two days and gives it to you now. That is why depression and suicide rates are higher when you come off a stimulant and why some people are enticed to take another dose to counteract the low. In total, since the benefits you are taking the drug for will likely not materialize and there are real potential legal and health risks associated with the practice, there is no rational reason to try it. It is best to study a little each day so the knowledge is in your long term memory, visualize yourself doing well on the test, and getting a good night’s sleep before the exam.

 – Dr. Michael White from the UConn School of Pharmacy