Exposure to Violence Creates Gender Disparity for Students

A recent study, co-authored by assistant professor of economics Maria Padilla-Romo, also highlights the gender inequity of standardized tests.

October 26, 2022

The threat of violent crime looms large for many young people around the world. New research finds that the stress from this threat puts female students at a long-term disadvantage in school and beyond.

The study — co-authored by Maria Padilla-Romo, assistant professor of economics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, and Eunsik Chang (HCB Ph.D., ’21), assistant professor of economics at Mississippi State University — examines how violent crime in a student’s local area affects high-stakes test scores and subsequent school placement. 

The team focused on Mexico City, where violent crimes are commonplace, and the school system uses an annual exam called the COMIPEMS as its sole means of assigning middle school students to public high schools. The researchers looked at students’ COMIPEMS scores and at homicide and firearms injury records in the area over a period of three and a half years.

The data revealed a significant gender gap in test results. Exposure to violent crime within 0.1 miles in the week before the exam lowers female students’ test scores by approximately 11 percent compared to female students not exposed to such an environment. Similar exposure has no such effect on male students’ test scores. 

The disparity is even more pronounced when violent crimes occur in neighborhoods that are usually considered relatively safe, Padilla-Romo points out. “The detrimental effects on girls’ test scores are larger in areas where they are not used to seeing shootings and homicides,” she says. “It’s more of a shock for them.”

Long-Term Impact on Education and Earnings

Lower COMIPEMS scores affect high school placement, putting girls who have been exposed to violent crime at a disadvantage. Approximately 19 percent of female students exposed to violent crime are subsequently assigned to less-preferred, lower-quality high schools than where they would have been assigned without that exposure.

Placement at less desirable high schools leads to further gender disparity in post-secondary education and career opportunities. Mexico City students at elite high schools enjoy privileges such as smaller class sizes, fewer students per computer and more college-educated teachers. Students at these schools also score better on a high-stakes graduation test. In the study, 3 percent of the female students who were exposed to violent crime before the COMIPEMS test lost the opportunity to be conditionally admitted to Mexico’s most prestigious university, UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), because they were not accepted to high schools affiliated with UNAM.  

Padilla-Romo says the study provides valuable evidence in ongoing education policy debates around high-stakes standardized tests. “Our results highlight the shortcomings of relying on entrance exams to make admission decisions,” she says. “Something as random as being exposed to violence — a fairly common event in many cities — the week before taking an admission test has detrimental effects not only on the exam score but on the educational trajectory thereafter.”

Exacerbating Economic Disadvantages

The study suggests that girls at economically-disadvantaged schools may experience a longer impact of crime-induced mental distress. Female students in high-poverty schools who are exposed to violent crimes two weeks before the test perform significantly worse than female students at the same poverty level who do not. Regardless of poverty levels, male students’ exam scores do not suffer due to crime exposure.

In school systems where so much rides on standardized test scores, even short-term shocks can have long-lasting consequences for girls’ futures, the researchers conclude.

“These shocks affect the test scores, which affect placements and education quality, which affect future education and future earnings, especially for girls who are already at a disadvantage when taking high-stakes exams,” Padilla-Romo says. “We have to rethink how admission decisions are made in many parts of the world, as many of these exams put historically marginalized groups at a disadvantage.” 

“When Crime Comes to the Neighborhood: Short-Term Shocks to Student Cognition and Secondary Consequences” is forthcoming in the Journal of Labor Economics. The paper can be accessed online.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, sestep3@utk.edu