A first-of-its-kind statewide longitudinal study comparing students in foster care with similar students who were never in the foster system is underway, using a unique linking of data systems that protects students’ privacy while identifying the barriers to academic success for foster youth.
Of the more than 59,500 foster youth in California, about 37,000 are school age. They tend to do worse academically than other students, and are twice as likely to drop out of high school. Researchers hope the study will pinpoint when and where the problems begin that cause many foster youth to struggle in school.
“It will help us understand the different pathways that foster youth have,” said project manager Kristine Frerer, with UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research (CSSR). “Are there junctures where foster youth take a different pathway? Are there areas where we can be more supportive in terms of policy or practice.”
Using encrypted data almost as hard to crack as the Enigma code, CSSR linked foster youth in the state’s Child Welfare Services Case Management System with nearly identical non-foster youth in Cal-PASS, the only system in the state that collects data on individual students as they move from kindergarten through college. Although Cal-PASS is voluntary, 8,275 schools in 446 districts participate, along with every community college and University of California campus, and all but four California State University campuses.
The two groups of students were matched by a number of variables including grade, gender, race, ethnicity, special education, poverty, and performance level on the California Standards Tests.
The study is divided into three segments: elementary and middle school, high school, and college. Frerer said researchers are analyzing the first set of data right now. It follows foster youth in high school to see how they compare with non-foster youth when it comes to graduating and going to college.
Missing links to higher ed
Educators anticipate that linking the two databases will make it easier to keep track of foster youth when they move, which happens with surprising frequency. Nearly a third of foster children are placed in three or more foster homes, and about 12 percent live in at least five foster homes, according to a 2001 study by CSSR.
Pamela Hosmer said her district is trying to piece together records for a student who’s facing his 22nd move. Hosmer is program manager of the Children and Youth in Transition department in San Diego Unified, which has one of the best student information systems in the state. She said although the district has come very far in collecting data on foster youth, “there are still gaps in their credits and in their assessment scorecards; we still spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down records.” The study will investigate how those transitions, moving from home to home and school to school, are related to foster youth outcomes in school.
Lauren Davis Sosenko, with the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, which is partnering with CSSR, said they’ll also profile groups of high-achieving foster youth to see “what foster youth who complete university or college look like demographically, and what other common experiences and outcomes they share?”*
What happens to foster youth in college has been relatively unexplored until now, but it’s becoming more important with the passage of Assembly Bill 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which allows foster youth to remain in the system until they turn 21.
At California State University, budget cuts, increasing tuition and a record number of applicants have already limited enrollment, thereby increasing competition. “Students need to state their college plans as early as their freshman year in high school,” said Connie Hernandez Robbins, assistant director of the Guardian Scholars program for foster youth at San Jose State University. But when they move around so much, foster youth often don’t get to finish classes and don’t have anyone at home looking out for them, supporting them and encouraging them to apply to college.
“The more we can have the two systems work together to identify when a youth is not in school and when they are in school, we can provide administrators at the different schools systems with information on how they help that student get back on track with their education,” said Hernandez Robbins.
Time on their side
Compared with the crawling pace of getting CALPADS, the statewide student data base, off the ground, progress on the foster youth data set has surpassed the one-minute mile. We first wrote about the effort to link the two data system last February. Last month, researchers released a pilot study entitled First Look: Foster youth education outcomes in four California counties.
First Look provided some indication of the academic fissure affecting foster youth, but it was a limited study, a snapshot rather than a longitudinal video. Still, it illustrated what many educators feared, that foster youth lag behind their classmates on every California Standards Test. When those results are disaggregated, they breakdown according to similar lines as non-foster youth – Latino, African American and special education foster youth score below all others, as do foster youth attending the poorest schools.
Initial results of the longitudinal report could come as soon as next month. San Diego’s Hosmer is waiting for that before making any formal recommendations. “Until we have the real data that comes from school districts, I think it’s still just going to be guesses, educated guesses.”
* The study is funded by the Stuart Foundation, which is also a funder of TOPed.