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Revolving-Door Districts: Ohio Students Can't Stay Put

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A hefty new analysis of student mobility across Ohio has found a number of revolving-door districts where mobile students perform at some of the worst levels academically.

Under a joint project between the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Community Research Partners, analysts examined data from 2009-2011 to determine how often students changed schools, with special emphasis on the state's five largest urban areas, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton. The groups released the study, "Student Nomads: Mobility in Ohio's Schools," on Nov. 8.

The report measures mobility by measuring two factors: a two-year stability rate (how many students stayed in their school from Oct. 2009 to May 2011) and a one-year churn rate (the number of student admissions plus withdrawals, relative to enrollment size, from Oct. 2010 to May 2011).

The study concludes that student mobility is a "near-everyday reality." For example, one of every three students enrolled in an unstable Cincinnati school in Oct. 2009 would be gone two years later. Over 20,000 students entered and withdrew from Cleveland metropolitan area schools, which includes over 155,000 students.

Schools with the highest stability ratings, where at least 80 percent of students remained for at least two years, earned A or A+ ratings as measured by the Ohio Achievement Assessment. But the inverse was not necessarily true: Multiple unstable schools still managed A or B ratings, though most tended to gravitate toward C and D ratings, especially in larger districts (over 5,000 students).

Test results underscore the importance of understanding mobility. Students who transfer frequently have to adjust to new lives, new rules, and new coursework, and tend to perform worse academically. But the mobile students aren't necessarily the only ones affected, either; the report notes that non-mobile students in unstable schools also may be adversely affected by the constant flux in their schools.

Mobility also affects the accuracy of accountability measures. Schools have to know whether an incoming student advanced properly at his or her old school, or whether that student needs special assistance. Teachers must likewise assess what a student has and hasn't learned, and adjust instruction accordingly. (Imagine the poor students who transfer in during the Lord of the Flies unit—they'll have so much conch symbolism to catch up on!)

Not a single major Ohio urban district had building stability of over 80 percent, whereas almost no low-poverty urban/suburban schools had stability under 80 percent. The other kinds of districts, including urban, suburban, rural, and low-poverty rural districts tended to cluster between 70 and 90 percent stability.

Churn rates tended to follow along the same lines, with economically advantaged suburban schools having the least churn, though many districts with high churn also had A ratings. The report suggests, in a marginally subtle nod to school choice, that students who transferred into a high-performing district—and stayed there—might improve academically.

The report comes two years after the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 13 percent of American children change schools four or more times before enrolling in high school. The Fordham-CRP collaboration, though, claims to create perhaps the most-extensive examination of the issue in the United States, in an attempt to fill "the cavernous void" in student-mobility research.

The project takes into account moves based on social promotion, but did not analyze some information perhaps at work behind the numbers, including the presence of magnet schools, school closures, program movement (such as for students with special needs), grade realignment, or special purpose schools (such as dropout recovery schools).

For the data used in its analysis, the project turned to the Education Management Information System, Ohio's statewide data collection system, managed by the Ohio Department of Education and established in 1989. All of Ohio's accountability and funding systems run on EMIS data, which itself includes demographic, student attribute, attendance, program, course, and test information. Beginning with the 2008-09 school year, EMIS started to use student-identification numbers that tracked pupil movement, and these were used as the study's foundation.

One advantage of the student-identification numbers is that they allow tracking of student enrollment across districts without relying on school attendance records. Such a method negates problems caused earlier this year by numerous Ohio school districts manipulating attendance records in order to show improved accountability results.

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