Homelessness among Minneapolis students stunts their growth in math and can leave them behind their peers in math and reading for years, according to a long-term study released Tuesday by the University of Minnesota.

"The risk isn't limited to the time they are homeless. It's a persistent risk," said Ann Masten, a professor of child development who was involved in the study.

Students who are homeless or move frequently make slower progress in math, both compared with their own previous progress and compared with their peers, according to principal author J.J. Cutuli, now a University of Pennsylvania researcher.

The research also found that homeless or frequently transient students lag behind even the lowest-income students on district math and reading achievement tests.

The study builds on previous research on Minneapolis homeless students by the university that found homelessness creates academic gaps that persist for years.

But the latest study looked over a much longer period, following 26,474 students for up to five years of testing in third through eighth grades. It found that effects last much longer than what the previous two-year study concluded.

Some beat the odds

For the latest study, a student was deemed homeless or highly mobile if he or she had that experience at any point during a six-year period that ended in 2010.

Highly mobile students were those who reported moving at least three times in any given year. The study compared students' proficiency on the annual math and reading tests the district uses, and growth over time on those tests.

Homeless students were compared with those who were not homeless, some of whom qualified for subsidized school lunches. About 14 percent of the students were homeless or transient during the study period.

But the study also found that 45 percent of the homeless or highly mobile students tested close to or above the norm despite the disruption in their lives, meaning some cope better than others. Effective parenting and a child's ability to control impulses can overcome the effects of homelessness for these students, Masten said previous research shows.

The research this week is being published in the journal Child Development and discussed at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children.

More help from data

Zib Hinz, the Minneapolis school district's manager for homeless and mobile students, said the research is prompting the district to pay more attention to the individual needs of homeless students. She said the district's new database brings more information to teachers, including an online guide with strategies for improving work with homeless students.

The study found that homeless students showed less improvement on math and reading tests than even students who qualify for free lunches, those below 130 percent of the federal poverty line.

Students who qualify for reduced-price lunches, those below 185 percent of that guideline, did better than both groups, scoring close to the national norm. Higher-income students who weren't homeless score well above the norms.

Homelessness has more effect on a student's math improvement than on reading because math follows a building-block approach; missing a key concept can leave a student unprepared to grasp the next concepts. Reading takes a more cumulative approach and language skills are constantly in practice.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib