Data milestone for foster care

Researchers have linked two California databases in a rare undertaking that holds promise for helping the state’s 62,000 foster youth. The cross-pollination, announced earlier this month at the California Foster Youth Education Summit, connects California’s Child Welfare Database with Cal-PASS, the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success.

Cal-PASS partnered with UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research on the pilot project, which matched students in foster care with those not in the foster system by grade, disability, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. Researchers say the initial goal was just to see if it’s possible to connect the databases. Once they succeeded at that, they ran some numbers on educational outcomes for foster youth.

“It’s our hope that policy makers will use this to help inform policy development; they seem really hungry for this information,” said Lauren Davis Sosenko, associate director for special projects at Cal-PASS. Although participation in Cal-PASS is voluntary, it has sizable support: Every community college and 75 percent of school districts and public universities supply data. For this first attempt at linking, however, they studied just four counties: Fresno, Sacramento, San Bernardino, and San Diego.

Unexpected Outcomes

Despite the size of the sample, Sosenko said they were able to draw three major implications:

  • Foster youth not only scored lower than the general student population on the California Standards Test (CST), they also did worse when matched for key risk factors that hinder school success, such as disabilities, poverty, and certain ethnicities. In eighth grade math, just 19 percent of foster youth reached proficiency compared with 22 percent of similar students not in foster care and 34 percent of all students tested. This disparity held for all years of high school in English and for grades 9 and 11 in math.
  • Resources can make a world of difference. This may seem obvious on the surface, but the actual numbers are overwhelming. Foster youth in California’s community colleges who received financial aid were 136 percent more likely to remain in school than those who didn’t get money. So, you’d think they’d all be gobbling up the assistance, but that’s not the case. Many weren’t aware that the aid existed, and teachers and counselors, dismissing them as unlikely candidates for college, failed to provide the information. In a finding Sosenko called “criminal,” of the 5,492 foster youth in community college surveyed, only 16 percent received financial aid.  
  • Certain groups of foster youth are more academically vulnerable. Again, it’s the numbers more than the fact of the disparity that makes this so alarming. Disabled foster youth are 75 to 85 percent less likely to achieve proficiency on the California Standards Test than non-disabled foster youth.

Their findings weren’t exactly shocking news. Numerous studies have already shown what’s not working. But by connecting the dots, educators will be able to more accurately target services to specific groups of foster youth at different stages of their education, such as when to start talking about college, and to understand their unique challenges, such as how the number of times a child is moved from home to home affects their success in school.

“I worked with a kiddo yesterday who’s been in 21 schools and he’s 14; it’s hard to put together his educational history,” explained Michelle Lustig, coordinator for foster youth and homeless education in the San Diego County Office of Education.

The county office has had its own copyrighted data-sharing system in place for nearly five years (“September 19, 2006,” as Lustig precisely remembers), known as FYSIS, the Foster Youth Student Information System. Each of the 42 local school districts uploads academic data, which is matched electronically on a daily basis with information from juvenile court, probation, and the Child Welfare System/Case Management System.

The Challenge of Privacy

Access is carefully controlled only to those departments that are legally entitled to it, such as juvenile courts, which are required to monitor the academic process of students in foster care. Judges can pull up a student’s record and see in real time if the child has a lot of absences or is failing classes.

Privacy is a critical issue. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) contains strict regulations on who may see a student’s education records. But it’s also interpreted differently by different jurisdictions. The San Diego County Office of Education reads FERPA to say that information can be exchanged to comply with a judicial order or subpoena for health and safety, and for child welfare. However, that excludes data on discipline records like suspensions and expulsions.

FERPA proved more challenging for the Cal-PASS and Child Welfare System project. To make sure the project fell within the law, each student received a unique code that was not linked to either database; those codes were then encrypted before being sent to the researchers. But it proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, no one’s privacy was compromised; on the other hand, there’s no way to check back in a few years to see how the students are faring. That limitation won’t change in the next phase of the project, when Cal-PASS and UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Service Research expand to a statewide and longitudinal study.

Complement Not Compete With CALPADS

The promise of these data systems comes as problems continue with the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, the statewide student database known as CALPADS, which is way behind schedule. But neither Sosenko nor Lustig sees it as a competition. CALPADS will have a more robust data set, said Sosenko, because it’s a state-mandated system, and will collect more information from kindergarten through middle school, while Cal-PASS focuses more on the transition from high school to college. Moreover, CALPADS will provide a big-picture look at how foster youth are doing in school, while local systems like San Diego’s can pinpoint which individual students need help.

“I think there’s always been a tension in California around state-level data vs. local data, and at times that feels like it’s been put at odds,” said Lustig. “I don’t think it’s either/or; we need to see across the board how these students are doing rather than just how is Johnny doing, so I think both are great and needed and I hope that it happens.”


Did you know?

  • There are 62,000 foster children and youth in California
  • Three-quarters of foster youth work below grade level in school
  • Nearly 50% drop out of high school
  • One in four foster youth earn a GED instead of a high school diploma
  • More than a third of foster youth who “age out” of the system do not complete a GED or earn a high school diploma
  • Of the 4,000 foster youth who age out of care, 20% will attend college, but only 5% will graduate

Within the first 2 to 4 years after emancipation from foster care:
51% are unemployed
40% are on public assistance
25% become homeless
20% are incarcerated
Source: Child Welfare Dynamic Report System
American Bar Association, Center on Children and the Law
California Alliance of Child and Family Services
California College Pathways Program
California Foster Youth Education Task Force
Child Welfare System/Case Management System
County Welfare Directors Assn. of California Children’s Services
Fostering Media Connections
John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes
Legal Center for Foster Care and Education (part of ABA)
National Center for Youth Law
The National Center for Homeless Education
UC Berkeley Center for Social Services Research
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)