School Climate and the Impact of Neighborhood Crime on Test Scores

Research & Policy | March 28th 2019 |

During the last quarter century, crime rates in American cities plummeted, and recent data indicate that this encouraging trend continues. Yet violence mars everyday life for many children across the United States, and a growing body of evidence suggests that neighborhood violence has a negative effect on children’s academic performance. Many factors, both within and outside the four walls of a school building, contribute to a student’s academic performance; still, we know little about the extent to which school climate--that is, how safe, orderly, and welcoming students regard their school--moderates the pernicious effects of neighborhood violence. 

In a recent article in The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, authors Agustina Laurito, Johanna Lacoe, Amy Ellen Schwartz, Patrick Sharkey, and NYU Furman Center Faculty Director Ingrid Gould Ellen explore administrative data on middle schoolers in high-poverty New York City neighborhoods to understand whether school climate alleviates or exacerbates the effect of neighborhood crime on academic performance. To conduct their analyses, the authors draw upon three large data sets: (1) student-level data from the New York City Department of Education, which show middle schoolers’ test scores over time, (2) incident-level crime data from the New York City Police Department, geocoded at the individual street level, and (3) student responses to an annual survey that includes questions about school climate, administered by the New York City Department of Education. The authors selected questions from the annual survey about three important dimensions of school climate: safety, disorder, and sense of community to determine the relationship between school climate and the effects of neighborhood crime on students’ academic performance. 

Drawing from a sample of over 16,000 students in grades six to eight in 533 schools in high-poverty New York City neighborhoods, the authors compare the test performance of students exposed to neighborhood crime in the week before a test with that of similar students exposed to neighborhood crime in the week after a test. The results show that the effects of exposure to neighborhood violence were smaller for students in schools perceived to be safe than for students in schools perceived as less safe. Specifically, the authors emphasize:

  • Middle school students exposed to violent crime before a standardized test who attend schools that are less safe or that have a weak sense of community score 0.06 and 0.03 standard deviations lower on English Language Arts standardized tests. 
    • Previous research shows the largest effects of neighborhood violence on reading (English Language Arts) and no effects on math; unsurprisingly, then, the authors find no impact of crime exposure on students’ math performance. 
  • Middle school students attending the schools perceived as the safest, least disorderly, or with the strongest sense of community suffer no noticeable effect on standardized test performance when exposed to violent neighborhood crime.
  • Taken together, the findings above suggest that schools with strong and nurturing climates might protect students from the damaging effects of violent neighborhood crime.

The authors also find different effects for different gender and racial groups. The negative effect of exposure to neighborhood violence seems concentrated among boys attending schools with weak climates; in fact, the authors observe no performance effect for girls. Troublingly, the data reveal that black students are overrepresented in schools with weak school climates. And black and Hispanic students exposed to neighborhood violence before a standardized test who attend schools perceived to be less safe see performance on English Language Arts exams dip, on average. The analyses by subgroup “uncover that the effect of exposure to violence is particularly salient for boys and Hispanic students in schools deemed the least safe.”

While the authors take heart in the evidence suggesting that “many schools are safe havens for young people who live in dangerous neighborhoods, insulating them from the acute effect of exposure to violence on achievement,” they encourage further exploration of the following questions: 

  • What are the effects of repeated, or cumulative, exposure to neighborhood violence?
  • How might other components of school climate, besides those examined in the current study, shape students’ responses to neighborhood violence? 
  • How do schools successfully, and sustainably, promote strong, safe climates? 
  • How do changes in school climate affect other student outcomes besides standardized test scores? 

Read the full study, or explore more Furman Center research about neighborhood conditions like crime, health, or education


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