When it came to more common types of risky behavior -- such as lighter drinking, or smoking cigarettes or marijuana -- there was no clear difference between the two groups.
According to Wong, that was unexpected. "We were surprised we didn't see more differences," he said. "But it is encouraging that we found lower rates of very risky behaviors -- the kinds of behaviors you don't want any teenager engaging in."
The findings were published in the July 21 online edition and in the August print issue of the journal Pediatrics.
A researcher who reviewed the study called it a "beautifully conducted natural experiment."
"The findings emphasize the importance of high-performing schools for both academic and health outcomes, which provides even greater imperative to enhance the academic performance of all schools," said Kelli Komro, a professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who studies the effects of social factors on kids' health.
It's not completely clear why a higher-performing school would influence teens' risk-taking. But Komro said "positive connections" between teachers and students could be one reason. Plus, she added, those schools may create a "culture of high expectations" when it comes to student behavior.
Wong's team found that two factors seemed key in explaining the lower rate of very risky behavior: Kids at high-performing high schools were less likely to switch schools or drop out, and they generally scored higher in standardized English and math tests.
Wong said it's possible that kids who fare better academically feel more "hopeful" about the future, make better choices -- or may be too busy with homework to get into trouble.
Whatever the reasons, he said, "we think this shows that schools do more than teach rea
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