Urban Intradistrict School Mobility and Its Association with Elementary School Academic Achievement

Alex Moffett

Major Professor: Adam Winsler, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Timothy Curby, Angela Miller

Online Location, Online
October 30, 2020, 02:30 PM to 04:30 PM


The United States has one of the highest school mobility rates of any developed country and it is disproportionately experienced by ethnic minorities hailing from lower-income families, especially those attending schools in densely populated districts. Disentangling the effects of school mobility from other preexisting and concurrent factors has proven difficult, with considerable variability in effect size and even directionality in prior literature. Mixed findings reflect in part the choices that researchers make in defining school mobility for quantitative analysis. Prior research has been inconsistent with including child characteristics to reduce selection bias, modeling change in academic outcomes over time as a function of school mobility, and accounting for variance found within/between students and between higher clustering units, such as schools.

The main goal of this dissertation was to address some of these prior gaps with an applied developmental, ecological systems approach by controlling for preexisting and time-varying child characteristics, and then assessing the association of intradistrict school mobility with academic outcomes over time during the first five years of elementary school. This was achieved by using a cohort-sequential longitudinal dataset of students attending schools in a densely populated school district between first and fifth grade (N = 20,806). Main analyses were conducted with cross-classified random effects growth models in HLM 6.4 software (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002) to account for variance within students, between students, and between schools. Controls for student characteristics included time-varying annual status of free and reduced lunch, primary exceptionality, and English proficiency, and time-invariant controls included school readiness, gender, and ethnicity.

Students who ever moved schools had lower average GPA, reading and math test scores by the end of fifth grade compared to children who remained enrolled at the same school between kindergarten and fifth grades. Each additional move was negatively associated with fifth-grade GPA (20% of a standard deviation decline per move), and math and reading scores (each about a 10% of a standard deviation per move). Frequent movers, compared to nonmobile and less frequent movers had lower academic outcomes by the end of fifth grade. Students who moved earlier had lower GPA and reading and math scores compared to nonmobile students and those who moved later in elementary school. The findings suggest that intradistrict school mobility is an often overlooked factor in explaining variance in academic achievement. As changes in school setting are not monolithically negative, increased standardization in reporting the reasons for and timing of school mobility would allow researchers greater precision in identifying the most problematic mobility patterns.