Student Mobility

"Student mobility" refers to the phenomenon of students changing schools for reasons other than grade promotion. Students who transfer frequently between schools during the school year are at greater risk for academic and behavioral problems (Hartman, 2002). Some research suggests that differences in student achievement between non-mobile and mobile students can also be attributed to students' background characteristics (Rumberger, 2002). For example, a Minneapolis-based study found a strong relationship between mobility and a student's race and family income (Kids Mobility Project, 1998)

The 2004 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the U.S. Census found that 15 to 20 percent of school-aged children moved in the previous year.

The 2004 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the U.S. Census found that 15 to 20 percent of school-aged children moved in the previous year. According to a study conducted in 1994 by the U.S. General Accounting Office, one out of six children had attended three or more schools by the end of the 3rd grade. Research indicates that frequent school changes have a cumulative affect on students' achievement that can place them as much as a year behind their peers (Kerbow, 1996). Students changing schools frequently are also at greater risk of dropping out (Rumberger and Larson, 1998).

Schools with high rates of student mobility generally have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • large population of children of migrant workers,
  • large population of homeless children, and/or
  • large population of low-income families.

Children of military personnel represent a type of mobile student not usually considered in most research. According to the Military Child Education Coalition, approximately 800,000 military-connected students make an average of six to nine school changes between kindergarten and high school graduation (Keller, 2003). Approximately 13 percent of these students attend schools run by the Department of Defense. Due to targeted programs aimed at reducing the negative affects of mobility, DOD students tend to have high academic achievement. However, 75 percent of military-connected students do not attend DOD schools and encounter similar challenges faced by other students who transfer frequently between public schools.

The potential impact of mobility on students' education is significant. Students who move often between schools may experience a range of problems such as:

  • lower achievement levels due to discontinuity of curriculum between schools,
  • behavioral problems,
  • difficulty developing peer relationships, and
  • a greater risk for dropping out.

Although little research has been conducted on the impact of student mobility on non-mobile students, schools with significant incidences of student mobility also report an impact on their non-mobile students, teachers, and overall school climate. For example, a policy brief published in 1999 by Policy Analysis for California Education, found that California schools with high mobility rates (30 percent or higher), reported that test scores for non-mobile students were considerably lower than those of students in schools with lower mobility rates. The findings support claims that continual student turnover is disruptive and keeps non-mobile students from moving ahead as teachers spend extra time helping newer students catch up. Some schools have attempted to alleviate this by keeping highly mobile students (i.e. children of migrant workers) segregated from other classes, so that the continual arrival and departure of mobile students does not disrupt the education of other non-mobile students (Hartman, 2002).

While student mobility has yet to take center stage on the national policy front, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 includes certain caveats in the law that allow schools and districts to omit test scores of students who don't meet certain time-in-school/district requirements. These exceptions raise the question of whether mobile students will fall through the cracks of a system meant to hold schools accountable for the academic success of all students. In a recent court ruling, however, a federal judge ruled that uinder the McKinney-Vento Act f 1987, which guarantess the right of homeless children to education, all students must be given an adequate education as defined by NCLB (Barak, 2004). Still, the system for tracking these students to guage individual progress is incomplete.

The National Center for Educational Accountability advocates the development of longitudinal student databases to allow school officials to track students across different schools throughout their school careers. This enables schools to make a more accurate placement of the student based on their academic needs (Dougherty, 2002). According to Education Week’s Quality Counts 2005 report, 25 states have developed a statewide student-identification program designed to help schools that receive transfers access important information about a new student's history in a timely manner.

States are developing programs in an attempt to lower student mobility rates and mitigate the effects of mobility on students' education. Examples of these programs and strategies include:

  • providing outreach to educate parents about minimizing the negative effects of mobility,
  • creating "buddy systems" by partnering new students with current students,
  • implementing district-wide and state-wide standardized curricula,
  • developing efficient student record-tracking systems between schools and districts, and
  • providing professional development to assist teachers in meeting the needs of highly mobile students.

Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. (2004, August 4). Issues A-Z: Student Mobility. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from

Barak, T., "Homeless Children Retain Right to Sue, Judge Rules," Education Week, 24 (12), pg. 6, November 17, 2004.
Dougherty, C., "Using Data to Improve Schools: The Educator's Role," National Center for Educational Accountability., 2002. Dougherty, C., "Getting Smart about Data: Satisfying Federal Reporting Requirements While Helping Schools Improve," National Center for Educational Accountability, 2002.
Hartman, C., "High Classroom Turnover: How Children Get Left Behind," in Dianne M. Piche, W.L.Taylor, and R.A. Reed (Eds.), Rights at Risk: Equality in an Age of Terrorism, pp.227-244, Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights, 2002. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
Keller, M., Executive Director, Military Child Education Coalition, personal communication, July 18, 2003.
Kerbow, D., "Patterns of Urban Student Mobility and Local School Reform" Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 1(2), 1996.
Rumberger, R.W., "The Educational Consequences of Mobility for California Students and Schools," Policy Analysis for California Education, 1999.
Rumberger, R.W., and Larson, K.A., "Student Mobility and the Increased Risk of High School Dropout," American Journal of Education, 107(1), pp. 1-35, 1998.