Classroom ‘churn’ has negative effect on third grade reading scores, new Colorado study finds

When more students move in and out of the classroom midyear, third grade test scores tend to decline, researchers found. (Jimena Peck for Chalkbeat)

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Classroom “churn” — when students leave a classroom midyear or new students join — can have a negative effect on third grade reading scores, according to a new study that examined Colorado census and state standardized test data.

The study, by researchers at the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University, found that higher classroom churn was correlated with lower third grade reading scores, based on data from 2019. It’s a trend that the center’s executive director and lead economist, Phyllis Resnick, suspects has ramped up since that year, as schools experience higher levels of chronic absenteeism after the pandemic and struggle to make up for lost learning.

After the study revealed that finding, Resnick said she spoke to one teacher who had 40 different students cycle in and out of 20 seats in her classroom in a single year.

“Every time you have a new student, you have to take a step back and assess where that student is and then integrate them into the classroom,” Resnick said.

“It’s not easy to be a kid who’s bouncing in and out of schools,” she said, “but it’s also a challenge for the kids who are consistently in the classroom.”

Classroom churn was one of many factors examined in the study, called “Social Factors of Academic Success.” The research, Resnick said, grew out of a question from CSU officials: What policies can Colorado adopt to help students be more prepared for learning after high school, whether that’s at a college campus, a vocational training program, or a job site?

Resnick doesn’t specialize in education research, but she said it quickly became clear that early intervention, or policies with the potential to impact young students, would be most effective.

With a team well-versed in figuring out the impact of different socioeconomic, demographic, and community health factors, she and the other researchers set out to determine which of those factors most affect third grade reading scores in Colorado.

Many of the findings were unsurprising. For instance, the team found that the more funding a school had, or the more access to early childhood education a community had, the higher its students’ third grade reading scores.

The finding about classroom churn stood out as more interesting, Resnick said. To calculate it, the team used data collected by the Colorado Department of Education on student mobility, plus scores from the state’s third grade standardized reading and writing test.

When stacked up against all the other factors, classroom churn ranked third among the factors most closely correlated with third grade reading scores, behind students’ household income and whether their parents have college degrees. Other classroom factors, including class size and teacher pay, did not correlate with third grade reading scores, the study found.

As Resnick has shared the findings informally with elementary school teachers and principals, she said many of them have acknowledged that churn can be difficult. But they said they never thought of it as a problem that could be solved by policy. Instead, Resnick said, they thought of it as something that would always be there. She described it as “the air they breathe.”

The study makes several policy recommendations to address classroom churn, including providing more support in classrooms with high churn or having teachers “loop” with the same cohort of students year after year to provide some level of stability.

Housing instability is often a root cause of classroom churn, and while it may be difficult for schools to affect housing policy, the study suggests that states shore up their school records transfer systems so teachers know the academic histories of students who arrive midyear.

Now that the study has been released, Resnick hopes to find the funding to take it on the road to discuss the findings and potential policy solutions with educators across Colorado.

“We see this as the beginning to frame a conversation,” she said.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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