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Foster Care Student Data Emerges from the Shadows

Schools don't always know when they're serving foster care students, who are at high risk for dropping out and falling behind. But researchers and policymakers have laid the foundation for identifying and helping these students succeed academically.

Editor's note: This is the first story in a three-part series on foster care data sharing. May is National Foster Care Month, and an opportunity to examine how policymakers, researchers, and education and child welfare leaders are working together to help foster care students succeed academically.

Every year, more than 400,000 neglected or abused children are taken away from family members and placed with foster families in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of these children fall between ages 5 and 17, when they would likely be in elementary or secondary schools. Their teachers and other school staff often hear about what's happening to the child and report it, along with other working professionals in legal and law enforcement fields, according to the Child Maltreatment 2015 report from the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But while educators may have started out knowing what was happening with these children, they often lost touch with them when students were placed in foster care. In fact, schools haven't always known when they have these children in their classrooms due to frequent school changes, privacy laws and lack of data sharing. They make up such a small percentage of the student population that their needs aren't always on educators' radar.  

That's a problem for schools because children in foster care tend to have lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates and slower grade progression than other students. This achievement gap was hidden for a long time at the state level because two major agencies didn't share much information — with good reason. Child welfare agencies kept records on children who entered the foster care system, and education departments tracked how these students did in school. They each had separate information systems and followed different privacy and reporting laws. 

"There was no structure, no bridge between two big statewide systems that were for totally different purposes," said Vanessa Ximenes Barrat, a senior researcher with the nonprofit WestEd, which pushes for improvement in students' education outcomes.

California's Experience  

Researchers recognized the challenges that students in foster care faced as they frequently moved between foster families, changed schools and dealt with the trauma they experienced. But they didn't know how much this instability affected their education outcomes because children's education and foster care records were never matched and analyzed together.

That dilemma led legislators and advocates to create a policy framework designed to bridge the systems so they could work together for student success. While other states had addressed this issue earlier, California's legislative work provided a model that federal policymakers and other states including Washington and Arizona have followed. 

Barrat, BethAnn Berliner and several other researchers from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd asked California to build a bridge between its child welfare and education systems that would allow for the study of education outcomes of students in foster care during the 2009-2010 academic year. The California Department of Social Services agreed to send a data file to the California Education Department so that the child welfare and education records for each child could be matched. Whenever they had a match, researchers analyzed how that student did in school.  

Researchers discovered that students in foster care had the lowest high school graduation rate, highest school dropout rate and lowest state testing participation rate. They published their findings in two 2013 and 2014 reports funded by the Stuart Foundation.

The California reports showed that out of more than 394,000 students enrolled in 12th grade, 84 percent graduated compared to 58 percent of more than 2,500 students in foster care. That's a lower rate than other sub-groups that tend to struggle, including English language learners, students with disabilities and learners from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The students who did take standardized tests didn't do as well as their peers. Just 29 percent were proficient on the California Standards Test for English language arts compared to 53 percent for students overall. 

One-third of students in foster care also changed schools at least once in the school year — four times the rate of their peers. And about 15 percent of students in foster care attended the bottom tenth of schools. 

Many people are responsible for children's well-being and education when they're in foster care, including the county, the caregiver, the case worker and the school. But they typically don't know everything that's going on with a child because they don't have the data. 

"It's difficult to execute on your responsibility when you're sort of operating in the dark," said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, which worked with the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education on a road map for securely connecting foster care and K-12 records.

The results from the data analysis exposed a major problem. California policymakers addressed it immediately. In 2013, they changed the Local Control Funding Formula for schools through Assembly Bill 97, which required schools to report the education outcomes of students in foster care through the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System. Additionally, the legislation gave county education offices responsibility for verifying that the data for schools in their county was accurate.

The funding formula provided more money to school districts based on the percentage of students they served who were in foster care, who were learning English and who were from families with a low income. This additional money funded services for these students including nutrition, transportation and academic support. In exchange, schools were held accountable for the academic results of these groups. 

Under the new law, the California departments of social services and education needed to develop and agree to a memorandum of understanding. This memorandum would require social services to share data at least weekly with the education department so they could identify students in foster care. The state superintendent of public instruction would report education outcomes for these students to the Legislature and governor. And the education department also would send weekly data to schools and county offices of education so they would know which students in their service area were in foster care. 

Similar data sharing agreements were already in place at the local level in a number of counties including Sacramento. But the state match made sure that schools in every county at least knew who their foster kids were. 

"The memorandum of understanding that allowed the California Department of Social Services and the California Education Department to even do the match was huge," said Trish Kennedy, director of Foster Youth Services at the Sacramento County Office of Education. "As soon as schools and county offices of education began getting the data match of their foster youth, it kind of set a new level, a new bar on data sharing."  

Two years later, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 854, which allowed county offices of education to apply for grant funding so they could serve as coordinators of foster services. A foster care coordinator in each county office would work with local schools, county child welfare agencies and county probation departments to appropriately place children in schools with the goal of minimizing school changes. The legislation also authorized schools to provide transportation for students when it was in their best interest to stay in their original school, even though they might be placed in a home outside of the district.  

A number of organizations including the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law successfully pushed for foster care reform in California. Then they worked nationally to transfer some of those same foster care student provisions to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that passed in 2015. 

"California was a leader, really, in setting up the formula that identified students in foster care," Barrat said.

Once the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law, every state had to start figuring out how to share data both ways between child welfare and education agencies. Previously, federal law called for child welfare agencies to send data to their counterparts in education, but the education agencies didn't have to share data back. State education agencies now have to share data with their counterparts in child welfare, keep students in their original school when it's in the children's best interest and report on education outcomes for these students. Schools also have to work with local child welfare agencies to enroll new students, transfer their records immediately and provide transportation from their new foster care home to their original school. That meant that both sides needed to appoint foster care liaisons at the local, regional and state level.

In Washington state, the passage of ESSA spurred progressive policymakers to change state law so that child welfare and education agencies could share data and collaborate as the federal legislation required. Arizona also passed legislation after researchers including Barrat and Berliner found achievement gaps just like they did in California. 

With a legislative framework established, California and Washington leaders set out on a challenging journey to collaborate across agencies so they could help foster care students succeed. 

In the second part of our series, find out more about the progress Washington leaders have been making on this journey as they overcome tough challenges.