Student Mobility and Academic Achievement. ERIC
by Rumberger, Russell W.
Student mobility--students moving from one school to another for reasons
other than being promoted to the next school level-is widespread in the
United States. Over their entire elementary and secondary careers, most
students make at least one non-promotional school change (Rumberger et
al., 1999). Many educators believe that student mobility is an inevitable
result of students changing residences. Indeed, 2000 U.S. census data show
that 15% to 18% of school-age children moved in the previous year (see
http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/p20-538.pdf). There have also been
indications that welfare reform may affect moving, with parents moving
to accept jobs.
However, research has also found that between 30% and 40% of school
changes are not associated with residential changes (Kerbow, 1996; Rumberger
et al., 1999). School factors such as overcrowding, class size reduction,
suspension and expulsion policies, and the general academic and social
climate also contribute to student mobility. The increase of parental options
included in the No Child Left Behind legislation may also contribute over
time to increased mobility. This Digest examines the research on the academic
consequences of mobility for elementary school students and discusses what
schools and parents can do to mitigate the possible negative effects of
RESEARCH ON ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
Numerous studies have examined the impact of mobility on several aspects
of academic achievement: test scores, grades, retention, and high school
completion. As with all research studies, there are limitations to what
these studies tell us. Most important, because mobile students may have
personal and family problems that contribute to their mobility, studies
should take into account those prior characteristics in order to determine
whether mobility itself is the cause of subsequent achievement and other
problems in schools.
Studies that do not control for the background characteristics of students
consistently find that mobile students have lower achievement on average
than non-mobile or stable students. For example, one national study of
third-grade students found that frequent school changes were associated
with a host of problems, including nutrition and health problems, below-grade-level
reading scores, and retention in grade (U.S. General Accounting Office,
Yet studies that do account for background differences find that mobility
may be more of a symptom than a cause of poor school performance. One study
of mobile students in Chicago found that half of the achievement differences
between mobile and stable students could be attributed to differences between
the students that pre-dated their school changes (Temple & Reynolds,
1997). One well-designed study of elementary students in Baltimore found
that although mobility during elementary school had a negative association
with test scores, grades, retention, and referral to special education
in fifth grade, the association was largely insignificant once controls
were introduced for the family and academic performance in first grade
(Alexander, Entwisle, & Dauber, 1996). In other words, mobile students
came from poorer families and had lower academic performance before they
were mobile, a finding supported by other studies (Nelson et al., 1996).
Several national studies have also examined the impact of student mobility
on the academic performance of students across grade levels. These studies
were based on a national health survey that provided controls for the demographic
characteristics of students but not prior educational performance. These
studies found that only frequent-three or more-family moves predicted grade
retention (Simpson & Fowler, 1994; Wood et al., 1993). However, another
study based on the same data found that even one residential move had a
negative impact on a combined measure of both academic and behavioral aspects
of school performance, although the negative association was found only
among children who did not live with both biological parents (Tucker, Marx,
& Long, 1998). The authors suggest that two-parent families may have
more so-called "social capital" that can help mitigate the effects of residential
mobility (Coleman, 1987).
Finally, there is strong evidence that mobility during elementary school
as well as during high school diminishes the prospects for graduation.
One study that tracked children from early childhood to young adulthood
found that residential mobility reduced the odds of high school graduation
even after controlling for a variety of family background variables (Haveman
& Wolfe, 1994). Several studies based on the same national database
of over 10,000 high school students found that school mobility between
the first and eighth grades increased the odds of dropping out of school
during high school even after controlling for eighth-grade achievement
and other factors (Rumberger & Larson, 1998; Swanson & Schneider,
1999; Teachman, Paasch, & Carver, 1996).
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The answer to this question depends on how one views this phenomenon.
Some mobility is viewed largely as a strategic activity initiated by students
and their families to serve their own interests and educational preferences.
And there may be little that can be done to prevent mobility when mobility
is a result of families' decisions to change jobs or residences. In this
case, the only response is perhaps to better inform students and parents
about the possible problems that can result from changing schools and how
to mitigate them.
However, at least some mobility is neither strategic nor related to
moving. Rather, both students and schools initiate student transfers in
response to social as well as academic concerns. Consequently, much can
and should be done both to prevent some types of mobility, especially those
caused by school factors, and to mitigate some of the harmful effects from
Although not supported by formal research, experience suggests that
schools and parents can help reduce unnecessary mobility and mitigate its
harmful effects. Schools and districts can limit policies such as redistricting
that contribute to unnecessary mobility. The most general yet potentially
the most effective strategy to reduce mobility is to improve the overall
quality of the school. Case studies have suggested that substantial and
meaningful school reforms can dramatically reduce a school's student mobility
rate. For example, in a three-year period, Hollibrook Accelerated School
in Houston, Texas, reduced its student mobility rate from 104% to 47% (McCarthy
& Still, 1993). School districts can also be flexible with school boundaries
and provide transportation and other supports to help students in low-income
families remain in their schools. Districts can also cooperate with each
other to support transferring students.
In addition to these large-scale efforts, counselors, administrators,
and other school staff can:
* Counsel students to remain in the school if at all possible. Staff
can "problem solve" with a withdrawing student about how he or she could
remain at least until the year end-for example, how the student could use
public transportation or be transported by a family member if he or she
moved out of the neighborhood.
* Prepare in advance for incoming transfer students and facilitate the
transition of incoming transfer students as soon as they arrive.
* Establish ongoing activities and procedures to address the needs of
* Assess the past enrollment history of incoming students, including
the number of previous school changes, and closely monitor the educational
progress of students with three or more previous school changes.
Parents and students may also be able to prevent unnecessary mobility
as well as help mitigate the potentially harmful effects of mobility that
may be necessary or desirable:
* Students and parents can attempt to resolve problems at school before
initiating a school transfer.
* If possible, students can make school changes between semesters or
at the end of the school year.
* When a transfer is made, parents should personally sign students into
their new school and meet with a school counselor. They should also make
sure that their child's school records are forwarded in a timely manner
from their previous school.
* Parents should make a follow-up appointment with a school counselor
and teachers two or three weeks after a transfer is made to see how their
child is adjusting to the new school.
Although a substantial body of research suggests that students may be
affected psychologically, socially, and academically from changing schools,
the impact of mobility depends on such factors as the number of school
changes, when they occur, the reason for the changes, and the student's
personal and family situation.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Dauber, S. L. (1996). Children
in motion: School transfers and elementary school performance. Journal
of Educational Research, 90(1), 3-12. EJ 538 467.
Coleman, J. S. (1987). Families and schools. Educational Researcher,
16(6), 32-38. EJ 363 043.
Haveman, R., & Wolfe, B. (1994). Succeeding generations: On the
effects of investments in children. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Kerbow, D. (1996). Patterns of urban student mobility and local school
reform. Journal of Education of Students Placed at Risk, 1(2), 147-169.
EJ 531 794.
McCarthy, J., & Still, S. (1993). Hollibrook Accelerated Elementary
School. In J. Murphy & P. Hallinger (Eds.), Restructuring schooling:
Learning from ongoing efforts (pp. 63-83). Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press.
ED 357 437.
Nelson, P. S., Simoni, J. M., & Adelman, H. S. (1996). Mobility
and school functioning in the early grades. Journal of Educational Research,
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Rumberger, R. W., & Larson, K. A. (1998). Student mobility and the
increased risk of high school dropout. American Journal of Education, 107(1),
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Rumberger, R. W., Larson, K. A., Ream, R. K., & Palardy, G. J. (1999).
The educational consequences of mobility for California students and schools.
Berkeley, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education. ED 441 040.
Simpson, G. A., & Fowler, M. G. (1994). Geographic mobility and
children's emotional/behavioral adjustment and school functioning. Pediatrics,
Swanson, C. B., & Schneider, B. (1999). Students on the move: Residential
and educational mobility in America's schools. Sociology of Education,
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Teachman, J. D., Paasch, K., & Carver, K. (1996). Social capital
and dropping out of school. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58(3),
773-783. EJ 537 275.
Temple, J., & Reynolds, A. J. (1997, April). Predictors and consequences
of school mobility for urban black children from low-income families. Paper
presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
San Francisco, CA.
Tucker, C. J., Marx, J., & Long, L. (1998). "Moving on": Residential
mobility and children's school lives. Sociology of Education, 71(2), 111-129.
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U.S. General Accounting Office. (1994). Elementary school children:
Many change schools frequently, harming their education. Washington, DC:
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Wood, D., Halfon, N., Scarlata, D., Newacheck, P., & Nessim, S.
(1993). Impact of family relocation on children's growth, development,
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