The recent article in the New York Times, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill,” by Alan Schwarz, underscores the intense pressure to perform well on SAT and standardized tests, and that leads some students to use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the hopes of raising their scores. As the CEO and founder of CATES Tutoring in New York City, with offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester, and abroad in cities such as London, I personally have worked with hundreds of students – and Cates as a company with thousands – from elite private schools in the New York area and all over the world. Our clients run the gamut: regular time, extended time, double time, 2400 caliber on the SAT test, and students hoping to simply break 21 on the ACT test. A number of our students, particularly those enrolled in Envision Test Prep, our specialized division for students with learning differences, receive prescriptions for Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, et al and have benefitted greatly from these medications. We have often been asked about the advisability of providing PEDs to students who do not clinically need them, as a way to stay competitive with similar students who use PEDs in an effort to gain an advantage in the university admissions process. The concerns that prompt these questions underscore a key issue surrounding standardized testing: How many students really use PEDs like Adderall to get ahead?
The size of the problem
To be sure, the use of PEDs is a serious concern, but I agree with some of the leaders mentioned in the article, such as David Weiss, Superintendent of Long Beach public schools, that the issue is not as widespread as the article may lead you to believe. Why do we suspect this? From our discussions with students themselves here at CATES, we form very strong ties with our students, and get to know many of them on a personal level when appropriate. The conversation about drugs isn’t something we have ignored, particularly in regards to standardized testing. I can tell you that very few students bring up the idea of using Ritalin or Adderall – that is, if they aren’t already prescribed to benefit from supplements – during these conversations. And, when the subject does come up, we strongly encourage our students not to use a PED, especially if they’ve never tried it, as it may end up doing more harm than good.
It’s not necessary to use PEDs if you go about your preparation the right way. A little bit of prep work over the long haul is much more effective than any pill. Want to stay on top of your work? Then try creating outlines for all of your work – in every class, not just the more challenging ones – throughout the year. Re-writing your notes and your assigned reading in your own words will help you master them over time – and position you well for finals at the end of the year, which tend to be cumulative tests in most schools. Our test prep process – be it for standardized tests or school tests – focuses on helping the student embrace their strengths and weaknesses as a student, and building in strong techniques that lead to positive habits that manifest into strong results: good grades, strong SAT scores, confidence, etc. We have a blog that address some of these helpful tips (http://www.catestutoring.com/blog/preparing-for-finals/). These practices lead to life-long success and allow students to build character and confidence in their abilities.
On a related issue, it has been our observation that students who achieve the best scores typically come from families where the parents are still together. We believe the family unit is the foundation for student success. Students who come from families where the relationships are strong tend to be more successful in their studies – be it school grades or standardized test scores – than the students who come from, unfortunately, divorced families. While there are certainly exceptions – and there is MUCH more to be said about how the character of the family unit can influence a student’s progress and performance – this is a trend I have noticed in my 12 years of working with students.