School & District Management

School Violence Lowers Test Scores, But Not Grades

By Ross Brenneman — November 12, 2013 2 min read
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Violent-crime rates negatively affect students’ accountability test scores but do not seem to show an effect on overall grades, according to a new study from Brown University.

Research associate Julia Burdick-Will used crime data from Chicago to find that schools plagued by violence showed small, but nonetheless significant, decreases in math and reading scores from years with less violence. Grades remained constant, however, in spite of fluctuations in violence.

The discrepancy between grades and test scores exists, Burdick-Will reasons, because the assessments don’t offer any latitude to a school based on its climate. Stress and disruptions distract from learning, the study says, but tests are tests. Teachers, however, may be more willing to show leniency and flexibility due to violence, and grades reflect that empathy.

Chicago’s difficulties with safety (in and out of schools) are shared by many urban areas. While the city overall has less crime than many cities, Burdick-Will notes, during the 2009-10 school year, one quarter of the city’s schools called the police more than 17 times. Chicago headlines reinforce the point:

Those stories are a smattering of similar ones covering just the last two months.

Chicago officials aren’t ignorant of the school district’s woes with violence, especially gang violence. In the wake of numerous school closures and massive staff cuts, the district managed to recruit 600 adults to help monitor altered walking routes to schools, in an acknowledgement that the closures may have increased gang-related danger. (Though better financial management may have staved off the staff cuts that necessitated the volunteer drive.)

The other option for districts like Chicago, I suppose, is for teachers to keep their expectations untethered from school climate. Still ... I’m not a teacher, but I don’t know if it’s viable for an educator to say, “I’m sorry you were shot on the way home from school yesterday, but do you have your homework from Chapter Eight?”

Burdick-Will’s research appears in the fall edition of Sociology of Education.

Image: A makeshift memorial marks the site where Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old girl, and her father, a known gang member, were shot and killed earlier this year in Chicago. —M. Spencer Green/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.