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School Climate: For Middle Schoolers, Connection Can Drive Math and Reading

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The onset of adolescence can play havoc with students' academic performance, as heightened social pressures, bullying and a changing sense of self-identity make it harder for kids to focus on a book report or math homework.

Yet a strong, positive school climate may help counter that upheaval, suggests a new study of California middle school students. Researchers from the Regional Educational Lab West found that 7th graders' math and reading scores rose and fell over time with their belief that their schools had a welcoming climate.

Researchers looked at 7th graders' reports of school climate—including feelings of safety and connection, caring relationships with adults, meaningful student participation, and low rates of bullying, drug use, delinquency and discrimination at school—at 1,000 California middle schools, from 2004-05 through 2010-11. The schools are part of the regional lab's School Climate Alliance, a network of schools that share and analyze their student safety and engagement information to plan improvement strategies.¬†

Researchers compared school climate data to students' test performance in reading and math during that time, and converted both school climate ratings and achievement into state percentiles; a school at the 50th percentile on school climate had better reported climate than half of the schools in the state.

Predictably, schools with better climate also had better scores: Every 10 percentile points increase in reported school climate was was associated with a 2.5-point increase in average English performance and a 3.5-point increase in average math performance on California's state standardized tests.

There wasn't a strong relationship between students' academic performance and differences in climate among various schools in the same year. However, schools with high overall school climate had higher average reading and math schools, and student performance was strongly related to changes in the social climate within the same school from year to year.

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