Schools are under orders to make sure no child is left behind, but that can be tough to do when so many children are moving. At least four in 10 students change schools one or more times by the time they are 17, on top of their normal progression from elementary and middle schools to high school.
Students typically switch locations for reasons involving their parents — from job changes and marital breakups to military assignments and seasonal work for migrants.
The moves mean millions of children must adjust not just socially but academically, particularly when they switch midyear and cross state lines. Each state chooses its own curriculum, testing and definition of success.
When Jenna Gosser's family moved from San Diego to Saginaw, Texas, on Oct. 1, she was studying the colonies. Her new class was past that already, and had moved on to the Bill of Rights.
Jenna, 13, also wound up in the middle of a lesson about a writer she barely knew, Edgar Allan Poe. And she had no preparation for proportions, the topic in her math class.
"I'm trying to catch up, and it's getting easier," said Jenna, an eighth-grader at Highland Middle School in Saginaw, a Fort Worth suburb. "I'm hoping that it gets way easier. It's really hard."
The Gossers made the choice many families do: They moved for a better life, even if it meant short-term struggles at school for Jenna and her younger sister, Taylor. They bought a house in suburban Fort Worth, and now Jenna and Taylor see much more of their father, a truck driver who switched from a night shift to a day shift.
Both girls say their teachers have given them extra support, delighting their parents.
"If we didn't make this move now, it would have been even tougher as Jenna approached high school," said Monica Gosser, the girls' mother. "I'm sure it's hard now, but I think they're going to get more out of it in the long run."
Moving for the military
At Fort Belvoir Elementary, a public school on an Army post in Fairfax County, Va., hundreds of its 1,300 children come and go during the year. As military dependents, they arrive from far-flung places — including Panama, Germany and Alaska — that have varying academic standards.
So the Virginia school has afterschool programs, Saturday classes and volunteer help from the military to aid students. "It's built into the system to not even be surprised. You just make it happen," said counselor Peggy Moore.
Children in military families often have more support than others who move often, said Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
His research in California found students who changed high schools even once were less than half as likely to graduate than other students, even when controlling for other factors. They also were more likely to have trouble making friends and less likely to participate in afterschool activities, Rumberger found.
Even students who didn't move were influenced, as the turnover around them affected classroom instruction and teacher morale.
"Transferring is disruptive," he said. "It can end up better or worse, but there are costs — costs to the family, costs to the school, costs to the kid."
Most move for better lives
In Houston, homeless children may move four or five times each school year as their families shuttle between shelters. The school district identified more than 1,000 such children last year and provided transportation so each could stay enrolled at one school.
Along the Hudson River north of New York City, many Hispanic migrant families move in during the year to make a living by harvesting apples, corn, onions and other crops. State workers seek out children in these families, direct them toward school and tutoring and ensure parents know their rights. Most school districts respond well, said David Sokolove, coordinator of the Mid-Hudson Migrant Education Outreach Program.
"We don't want a school to see these kids as invisible, to think that their job is just to house them," Sokolove said. "We want them to get the same priority the year-round children get."
Schools, under pressure to make yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law, have a cushion when it comes to student mobility. They only count the test scores of students who have been with them for a full academic year.
The same is true for school districts and states. The idea is that schools should not be judged on the progress of children they have had little time to teach.
But such flexibility also means no one is really accountable for many students who move during the year, said Katrina Kelley, director of the Council of Urban Boards of Education for the National School Boards Association.
The federal law does require schools to issue report cards showing how migrant students are doing, said Doug Mesecar, deputy chief of staff for policy at the Education Department. The law also pushes schools to align their tests to state standards, which should lead to more consistent education for students who move within their state, he said.