High schools in Virginia where students reported a high rate of bullying had significantly lower scores on standardized tests that students must pass to graduate, according to research presented at APA's 2011 Annual Convention. 

"A bullying climate may play an important role in student test performance," said Dewey Cornell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia. "This research underscores the importance of treating bullying as a schoolwide problem rather than just an individual problem."

The research, which is part of the ongoing Virginia High School Safety Study, compiled surveys about bullying in 2007 from more than 7,300 ninth-grade students and almost 3,000 teachers at 284 high schools located across Virginia. About two-thirds of the students were white, 22 percent were African American and 5 percent were Hispanic.

The study found that schoolwide passing rates on standardized exams for algebra I, earth science and world history were 3 percent to 6 percent lower in schools where students reported more severe bullying. "This difference is substantial because it affects the school's ability to meet federal requirements and the educational success of many students who don't pass the exams," Cornell said.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, students must receive a passing grade on the standardized tests to graduate from high school, and at least 70 percent of a school's students must pass the tests for the school to keep its state accreditation in Virginia.

Ninth-grade students were surveyed because ninth grade is the year students enter high school, and research has shown that poor academic performance in that grade predicts a higher probability of high school dropouts.

Schools are under immense pressure to improve standardized test scores because of the No Child Left Behind Act, Cornell said. "This study supports the case for schoolwide bullying-prevention programs as a step to improve school climate and facilitate academic achievement," he said.

Effective anti-bullying programs must take a schoolwide approach that involves students, teachers and parents, Cornell said. The programs should provide help for bullying victims, counseling and discipline for bullies, and education for bystanders to discourage them from supporting bullying. Cornell doesn't believe bullying has increased in schools, but media attention has highlighted the serious problem. "We have become more aware of bullying due to a series of high-profile tragic cases involving school shootings and suicides," Cornell said. "Our society does not permit harassment and abuse of adults in the workplace, and the same protections should be afforded to children in school." 

—L. Bowen