Bullying in hallways and locker rooms is linked to lower test scores in the classroom for high school students, a new study finds.
In schools where bullying is frequent, schoolwide passing rates on standardized tests are as much as 6 percent lower than in schools without a lot of bullies, researchers reported on Aug. 7 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.
It's not known whether the bullying directly causes lower test scores or whether a bad school climate incubates both bullying and bad test scores, according to University of Virginia psychologist Dewey Cornell and his co-researchers. Research shows that bullying can harm victims both mentally and physically. Bullies themselves are also at risk for mental health problems and substance abuse.
As part of an ongoing study of the safety of Virginia high schools, the researchers compiled surveys about bullying in 2007 from more than 7,300 ninth-graders and about 3,000 teachers at 284 Virginia high schools. The surveys 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."
In schools where students reported severe bullying, passing rates on standardized tests for algebra I, earth science and world history ranged from 3 percent to 6 percent lower than in relatively bully-free schools.
"This difference is substantial because it affects that school's ability to meet federal requirements and the educational success of many students who don't pass the exams," Cornell said.
Cornell and his colleagues theorize that bullying could distract students who are more worried about surviving the day than passing a test. Alternatively, schools with more bullies might be more dysfunctional in general. Teachers might also be distracted from classroom time by having to discipline bullies.
"Our study suggests that a bullying climate may play an important role in student test performance," Cornell said. "This research underscores the importance of treating bullying as a schoolwide problem rather than just an individual problem."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.