Invisible Education Achievement Gap Between Foster Youth & Peers
“The Invisible Achievement Gap,” a landmark study funded by The Stuart Foundation, was released this October. The report, which connects statewide education data to child welfare data, is titled thus because its findings show that children in the foster care system often have specialized education needs that go unrecognized and unmet, leading them to fall behind their peers in terms of academic achievement.
The study found that students in foster care had a distinctly different demographic profile from other students. Students in foster care were three times more likely to be African-American than the statewide student population, but were less likely to be Hispanic or English learners. They were also twice as likely to have a disability, and, among students with disabilities, were five times as likely to be classified with an emotional disturbance. Students in foster care were also older for their grade level and had a higher risk of dropping out.
The study also found that foster care students had much lower rates of school stability, transferring between schools more frequently than their peers. Only about 2/3 of students in foster care attended the same school for the entire school year, compared to 90% of the general student population. In addition to this, about 10% of youth in foster care attended 3 or more schools during the school year, a level of school mobility experienced by only about 1% of the statewide student population. These findings are supported by a study recently conducted by UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services and the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, which found that foster youth are twice as likely to switch schools as their classmates, with about 95% of foster youth changing school the first year they were placed in care, as compared to 37-38% of the non-foster care student population. Such school mobility can be severely disruptive and have a detrimental effect on foster youth’s education, with students being said to lose about six months of learning with each school transfer.
In addition to this, the study found that students in foster care were more likely to be enrolled in the lowest-performing schools, with around 15% of foster youth attending the lowest-performing 10% of schools, as compared to only 2% attending the highest-performing 10% of schools. Foster youth also had lower enrollment rates in the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program, with only about 75% of foster youth participating in the program during their final year of testing. For those students in foster care who did take the test, an achievement gap was clearly visible between foster youth and their peers. Students in foster care consistently scored below the level of proficiency in English and elementary and secondary mathematics, falling into the two lowest performance levels at twice the rate of the statewide student population.
In light of these findings, researchers emphasized the need to recognize that foster youth in the education system are a distinct subgroup of students who are at high risk for poor academic performance and failure, and the need for educators and administrations to take steps to identify and address their specialized needs in order to enable foster youth to succeed academically.