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A Keyhole Look at Rural Student Mobility

While most studies of student mobility have focused on problems in poor urban centers, a recent analysis of five states by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, or McREL, suggests rural mobility rates can rival that of urban districts.

Frequent school changes can have a huge effect on a student's academic career, from low grades and test scores to behavior problems and difficulty making friends. Moreover, high student mobility can break down the learning process in a school as a whole, as teachers devote extra energy to helping incoming students catch up, and administrators try to provide teachers, space and materials for shifting numbers of students. In a small rural district, it takes a lot fewer kids moving around to play havoc with your staff assignment, special education supports and even course offerings.

Andrea Beesley, McREL senior director and lead author on the report, studied state-reported student mobility data for Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. The research team found that in Wyoming and North Dakota, rural districts had higher student mobility than did cities, though the smaller school populations in these districts may skew the sample.

Moreover, rural districts, particularly those considered remote by National Center on Education Statistics definitions, often showed "extremely high" mobility, defined as rates two standard deviations or more above the state average.

"Hotspots" of high student mobility often coincided with districts with high poverty or Native American reservations. Yet much more than that we can't tell, because each state collects and reports its data on student mobility differently: different grade levels included, different ways to include students who leave and return several times, and practically no information on where a mobile student comes from or goes to when he leaves. None of the states differentiated the highly mobile migrant student population from regular mobility counts.

"No two of them do it the same way," Beesley said. "Unfortunately it leaves you in the situation where in many cases you don't understand a lot about student mobility.

The team hopes to expand its research as state longitudinal data systems evolve and high schools begin to implement the Title I requirement to track student graduation rates longitudinally. It will be interesting to watch the picture on these rural schools come into focus.

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