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Bullying May Contribute To Lower Test Scores, Curry Researchers Find

August 5, 2011 — Students at Virginia high schools in which they report a high rate of bullying post significantly lower scores on standardized tests required for graduation, according to research being presented Sunday by University of Virginia researchers at the 119th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, being held in Washington, D.C. 

Dewey Cornell“Our study suggests that a bullying climate may play an important role in student test performance,” said Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and professor of education at U.Va.‘s Curry School of Education. “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 across Virginia. Approximately 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 a more severe bullying climate.
“This difference is substantial because it affects both the educational success of many students who don’t pass the exams and the school’s ability to meet federal requirements,” said Cornell, who is also director of the U.Va. Youth Violence Project .

Cornell, Erin Nekvasil, Anna LaceyUnder 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.

The high school freshman year is pivotal, Cornell said; research has shown that poor academic performance in ninth grade predicts a higher probability of high school drop-outs.

The survey defined bullying as “the use of one’s strength or popularity to injure, threaten or embarrass another person on purpose. Bullying can be physical, verbal or social. It is not bullying when two students of about the same strength argue or fight.”

The No Child Left Behind Act puts schools under immense pressure to improve standardized test scores, 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 involving 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.

The U.Va. study was co-authored by Anna Lacey, a graduate student in clinical and school psychology, and the research was supported by a grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The study couldn’t explain the reasons for a bullying climate at some schools or the causes of lower test scores at those schools, but the researchers offered several theories. The academic performance of students in schools with pervasive bullying may suffer because students are less engaged in learning due to fears about bullying or due to a greater level of school disorder associated with bullying, they said. Teachers also may be less effective because they spend more time focused on discipline, they added.

Cornell said he doesn’t believe bullying has increased in schools, but media attention has highlighted the serious problem.

“We have always had bullying in our schools,” he said. “What has changed is we have become more aware of bullying due to a series of high-profile tragic cases involving school shootings and suicides.

“Our society does not permit harassment and abuse of adults in the workplace, and the same protections should be afforded to children in school.”

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