MONDAY, Aug. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Students attending high schools dominated by bullies are more likely to have lower standardized test scores, a new study shows.

In fact, researchers in Virginia found that schoolwide passing rates on three different standardized exams (Algebra I, Earth Science and World History) were 3 percent to 6 percent lower in schools where students reported a more severe bullying climate. The findings, they added, highlight the fact that bullying is a pervasive problem in schools.

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

In conducting the study, researchers compiled surveys about bullying from more than 7,300 ninth graders and about 3,000 teachers at 284 Virginia high schools. The researchers pointed out that even a 3 percent to 6 percent drop in test scores associated with bullying is significant.

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

"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," said Cornell. "This study supports the case for school-wide bullying prevention programs as a step to improve school climate and facilitate academic achievement."

The researchers argued the poor academic performance was due to the fact that students are less engaged in learning when they are afraid about bullying. They also suggested bullying leads to a greater level of school disorder, which may have negatively affected test scores.

The study authors noted bullying programs should not only provide help for victims, but also counseling and discipline for bullies. Bystanders, they added, should also be discouraged from supporting bullying.

"We have always had bullying in our schools. 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," concluded Cornell. "Our society does not permit harassment and abuse of adults in the workplace, and the same protections should be afforded to children in school."

The study was to be presented on Sunday at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics provides more information on bullying.