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Report Documents “Invisible Achievement Gap” for Children in Foster Care

b3a55db231The first part of a report documenting the achievement gap between children in foster care and other students was released on October 14, 2013. The “Invisible Achievement Gap, Part 1 – Education Outcomes of Students in Foster Care in California’s Public Schools”1 links data from California’s education and child welfare systems for the 2009-10 academic year to provide a picture of how students in foster care are faring. It provides detailed information on the number of students in foster care, their demographic background, their school districts, and their educational outcomes from kindergarten to twelfth grade.

The report is notable for a number of reasons. First, it is considered to be the first report of its kind to provide such a wealth of data by linking data from the education and child welfare systems. Prior to this effort, it was not possible to identify public school students who were in foster care, and thus difficult to get a full picture of their educational progress. Data on English learners, students identified as being in migrant education and special education, and low-income students are publically available, but foster youth are not a subgroup identified on California’s Ed-Data website.2 The report is also ground-breaking in its ability to tease out whether foster youth experience such poor educational outcomes solely because they also tend to be part of other at-risk groups, such as low income students or students with disabilities. On this point, the report provides clear evidence that youth in foster care are at a particular disadvantage, even compared to other at-risk groups. It compared data for youth in foster care as a group as compared to other at-risk subgroups such as low-Socio-Economic Status (SES), English learners, and students with disabilities.

The data in the report show that students in foster care:

  • constitute an at-risk subgroup that is distinct from low-SES students;
  • are more likely than other students to change schools during the school year;
  • are more likely than the general population of students to be enrolled in the lowest-performing schools;
  • have the lowest participation rate in California’s statewide testing program;
  • show an achievement gap in statewide tests when compared to other at-risk students; and
  • have the highest dropout rate and lowest graduation rate.

Drop Out and Graduation Rates

The report revealed dramatic differences between students in foster care and other groups in completion of high school, arguably the bare minimum measure of academic success. The report looked at the percentage of students enrolled in grade 12 in fall 2009 who graduated from high school. It revealed that in 2009-10, just over half (58 percent) of students in foster care graduated from high school, as compared to 79 percent of low SES and 84 percent of all students. This is particularly sobering in light of the well-documented negative outcomes for foster youth who drop out of high school.3


Previous research has revealed that, in general, students in foster care are more likely to be identified as having a disability, and more likely to have mental health issues.4 This report documents this same pattern in California. Students in foster care are twice as likely to be designated with a disability as other students. They also form a unique sub-group within the group of students with disabilities; they are five times more likely to be classified as having an emotional disturbance.

School Stability and Quality

A lack of school stability is also frequently a challenge for students in foster care. This report reveals that in California, students in foster care are more likely to change schools during the school year than students in the comparison groups. Only 68 percent of students in foster care attended the same school for the full school year, a much lower percentage than the low-SES (90 percent) and the statewide student populations. Close to 10 percent of students in foster care attended three or more schools during the same school year. In contrast, only about 1 percent of the comparison groups experienced such marked instability.

Foster youth also attend lower performing schools at a disproportionately high rate. Approximately 15 percent of youth in foster care attend schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of schools on California’s Academic Performance Index (API).

Performance on Standardized Tests

The report found that just 29 percent of students in foster care achieved at proficient or above levels on the California Standards Test in English. The tests are administered every year to students from second to eleventh grade in California, and reflect the state’s academic content standards. By comparison, 40 percent of students designated as low socioeconomic status (low SES) tested at proficient levels or above, as did 53 percent of all students statewide. Similar gaps in achievement are evident for the state standards test in mathematics for grades two through seven. In high school, 12-13 percent of youth in foster care tested at proficient or above on the state standards tests for Algebra I and II. By comparison, 23 percent of student from low SES backgrounds and 32 percent of all students tested at or above proficient. In addition, students in foster care have the lowest rates of participation in California’s statewide testing program.

Looking Forward

The report was produced through a collaboration among the California Department of Education, the California Department of Social Services, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, and other agencies. Those involved with production of the report emphasize the need to act in order to close this dramatic gap between the achievement of foster youth and other students. “These findings help all of us understand that we have a long way to go to meet our education responsibilities to students in foster care,” said Holly Jacobson, Director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd.5

The Stuart Foundation funded the project as part of its focus on supporting “deep collaboration between educators and child welfare agencies to improve the educational trajectory of foster youth,” in the words of Teri Kook, Chief of Programs for the Stuart Foundation. Ms. Kook also noted that taking action to follow up on the report is critical: “We are eager to join our colleagues in translating this baseline information into actionable steps to improve educational outcomes for students in foster care.”6 To this end, recommendations are being developed, and should be released in the coming month.

Making the experiences of foster youth visible is a critical first step to better meeting their unique needs. The report should prove immediately useful as California becomes the first state in the nation to attempt to track the academic progress of students in foster care as part of its new school finance reform plan.7 Having this type of in-depth data about the current educational status of children in foster care should help to tailor those efforts to the particular challenges faced by these youth.

  1. The full report can be found online at:
  2. Launched in 1996, the Ed-Data website is designed to offer educators, policy makers, the Legislature, parents, and the public quick access to timely and comprehensive data about K-12 education in California. It is operated through a partnership of the California Department of Education (CDE), EdSource, and the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT). FCMAT’s California School Information Services (CSIS) hosts and maintains the site. The site is:
  3. See Improving Outcomes for Older Youth in Foster Care, Casey Family Programs (2008), at 3-4.
  4. See Youth with Disabilities in the Foster Care System: Barriers to Success and Proposed Policy Solutions, National Council on Disability, 2008 (“alarmingly high numbers of foster youth with mental, developmental, emotional, learning, and physical disabilities.”)
  5. Press Release, WestEd, New Research Reveals Invisible Achievement Gap for Students in Foster Care (October 14, 2013).
  6. Id.
  7. Jesse Hahnel, An opportunity to ensure foster kids succeed in school, U-T San Diego, July 10, 2013.