While a state survey of adolescents shows a decrease in overall drug use among older students, officials are concerned about results that show an increase in experimentation among sixth- and eighth-graders.
Although some question the accuracy of the Maryland Adolescent Survey Report, citing its length and format as too demanding of younger students, others say the results are an accurate depiction of drug use in Maryland schools.
The survey, which cost $80,000,was given to 14,000 Maryland students chosen to represent a statistically valid sample of the population.
"I really question whether a sixth-grader, or even an eighth-grader, is going to answer 205 questions about their alcohol and drug abuse accurately. That's just an awful lot of questions," says Michael Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse.
"The fact that 6.1 percent of sixth-graders said they had driven under the influence of drugs make me seriously question the validity of the survey," he said.
But Debbie Somerville, specialist in pupil services and project director for the survey, says it is "the best we have for knowing what [drugs] sixth-graders have used."
However, Somerville admits that she was troubled by the length of the survey, something she hopes the state will address when the biannual test is given in 1992.
She gives little credence to the idea that younger students made a practice of deliberately lying on the test about their drug use to make themselves feel older.
"When I was in sixth-grade classrooms, I saw kids who were really trying to answer questions correctly," she says. "They asked questions, and the types of questions that they asked made me realize that they were sincere."
According to the report, the use of all drugs other than alcohol and tobacco increased from 1988 to 1990 among Maryland's sixth-graders, from 5.5 percent to 7.4 percent. Only the use of cigarettes, alcohol and cocaine dropped. More sixth-graders reported experience with inhalants than with tobacco, which officials found to be particularly disturbing because of the risk of brain damage.
The use of tobacco, alcohol and inhalants for many students begins before age 12. Initial use of liquor and marijuana generally occurs at 13 to 16, the survey said.
Among Maryland's eighth-graders, the use of all drugs other than alcohol and tobacco increased from 1988 to 1990, from 11.4 percent to 13 percent. The use of amphetamines more than doubled from 1.8 percent to 4 percent. The use of marijuana and cocaine dropped.
Eighth-graders were the only group that showed an increase in the use of alcohol, with 27.6 percent of students reporting use compared with 27.2 percent in 1988.
For tenth-graders, use of drugs other than alcohol or tobacco decreased from 19.5 percent in 1988 to 18.7 percent in 1990. Alcohol use dropped from 50.5 percent to 43.9 percent.
The use of drugs other than alcohol or tobacco went down from 1988 to 1990 from 22.8 percent to 20.4 percent among seniors, the report said. However, Maryland seniors continue to report higher levels of drug use than seniors nationwide.
Also of concern to state officials were reports of binge drinking across all grade levels.
More than half of the 12th-graders said they used alcohol during the month before answering the questionnaire. Of those, one out of three said they had consumed five or more drinks on one occasion during that month.
Officials stress that this school year is the first in which a drug education program has been fully implemented in all grades. The results of the program, they say, won't be realized until today's kindergarten students are in sixth grade.
"We expect to continue to see a decline," Somerville says. "And the observation of the sixth and eighth grades reminds us that we can't forget those little kids."