This commentary was originally published at the Next100.
National data about K–12 students in the foster system paint a grim picture of how our education and child welfare systems are failing this student population. Recent data from the American Bar Association’s Legal Center for Foster Care and Education indicate that only about 33 percent of 17-to-18-year-old students in the foster system are reading on grade level; these students are also suspended at a rate 2.5 to 3 times higher than students overall, and are chronically absent at about twice the rate of students not in the foster system.
The trend is similar in New York State. The 2021 four-year August graduation rate was 49 percent for students in the foster system—thirty-seven percentage points fewer than their non-foster system-impacted peers of 86 percent. In 2019, only 17 percent and 16 percent of students in the system were proficient on their state English language arts and math assessments, respectively. These scores were about 30 percentage points lower than students not in the foster system. Some of these trends are even more disheartening at the local level. Recent data from New York City’s Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence revealed that in 2019 only 25 percent of students who spent seven or more days in the foster system in high school graduated in four years. In April 2022, New York City Department of Education staff testified before the New York City Council that middle and high school students in the foster system were overaged and undercredited at over three times the rate of the citywide average during the 2020-2021 school year.
The New York State Education Department (SED), New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), New York City Department of Education, and New York City Administration for Children’s Services each collect and report education-related data for children and youth in the foster system ranging from graduation rates, to state assessment scores, to New York City school stability data. The current state of data reporting for students in the foster system is fractured as a result of data collection and reporting at various levels of government and across multiple agencies, the data is unclear and conflicting. Definitions of students in the foster system differ across agencies and reports and timing of reporting also impacts data consistency. Data can be challenging to find, located in various places on at least four different state and local agency websites. There is no central way to view the educational outcomes and experiences of students in the foster system across New York State.
The data that is available shed some light on the academic experiences and needs of students in the foster system, but there is much we don’t know across New York State about these students including their: attendance rates, discipline rates, access to gifted and talented programs and advanced courses, disability status and classifications, retention rates, school stability rates, and data that highlights the long-term impact of involvement in the foster system on their educational outcomes and experiences. SED must make more data publicly available about this unique student population to better understand the breadth of the academic outcomes and experiences of students in the foster system. SED is in the unique position to collect and make that data available for all students in the foster system across the state.
Making more data publicly available at the state level is within the realm of possibility. In fact, New York State and New York City already report more data than is required under federal law. Additionally, other states can serve as a model for how New York might report additional data points. States like California and Indiana collect and publicly report data covering a wider range of educational experiences than New York, including discipline, retention, attendance, and school stability rates.
The following recommendations are based on promising practices in other states, and a survey of all state report cards carried out by the author in March 2022. Both state and federal recommendations are included below.
Read the full report and recommendations with state examples here.
Recommendations for Improving Data for Students in the Foster System
SED should collect and make publicly available the following additional data about students in the foster system:
- Chronic absenteeism data for students in the foster system, disaggregated by age and grade. Attendance is crucial for academic success, and the state must ensure that it’s clear whether students in the foster system are attending school regularly.
- Overall and unique suspensions and expulsions for students in the foster system disaggregated by suspension type, race, gender, ELL status, and disability status. Reporting suspension and expulsion data for students in the foster system is critical to understanding whether these students are disproportionately impacted by class and school removals and expulsions.
- Disability status, disability classification, and specialized district and school placement data for students in the foster system. Students in the foster system are overrepresented in special education. In addition to overall overrepresentation, it’s important to understand whether there are any further disparities, by classification or school district or school placement type.
- Grade retention data for students in the foster system. There is cause for concern regarding retention based on a 2018 New York City Interagency Task Force Report, which revealed that NYCDOE students in the foster system during the 2015-16 school year were over 3.5 times more likely than all NYCDOE students to repeat a grade. It’s important to understand whether students in the foster system across the state are also having challenges advancing from one grade level to the next.
- Gifted and Talented (G&T), Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) participation data for students in the foster system. Participation data for these students will help uncover whether students in the foster system have access to and are enrolled in advanced courses and programs at similar rates as other students—helping to highlight any disparities for students in the foster system.
- School stability data for students in the foster system. Making this data available will reveal whether students in the foster system are maintaining school stability when they enter the foster system or change foster placements. Overall and unique school stability data will help reveal the extent of school transfers and transfers to specialized and alternative school districts or schools.
- “Ever” in foster system and length of time in foster system data as it relates to high school outcomes and state assessment results, to better understand the impact of foster system involvement on these students’ educational outcomes. “Ever” in the foster system and length of time in the foster system indicators can reveal much about how placement and length of stay in the system impacts educational outcomes and experiences.
To further support data transparency and accessibility, SED (in partnership with OCFS where applicable) should also implement the following practices:
- New data about students in the foster system should be cross-tabulated and reported at the school, district, county, and state levels. Any data shared regarding students in the foster system should be cross-tabulated by race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, and ELL status. Cross-tabulation allows policymakers and advocates to see, and begin to address, any disparities within the students in the foster system group.
- SED and OCFS should ensure that reported data is accurate, consistent, and complete. SED and OCFS should continue to work together to improve data collection and reporting by ensuring that staff from both agencies accurately identify and report students in the foster system.
- SED and OCFS should work together to issue a biennial report about the educational outcomes and experiences of students in the foster system. SED and OCFS should collaborate to issue a public biennial report including existing and recommended data regarding the experiences of students in the foster system in New York State. Following the release of the report, SED and OCFS should partner with parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and other school and child welfare staff to create, and make publicly available, a plan for improving educational outcomes and experiences for students in the foster system.
General data recommendations:
- SED data should be more easily accessible and comparable for parents, students, policymakers, and advocates. SED’s website functionality should be improved to increase ease of use and access, especially with regards to data comparison, data visualization, report customization, and data downloading.
- All SED data available on the website and for download should be fully translated. SED should consider working with parents, students and key stakeholders who speak languages other than English to ensure that the Google translations on its website are accessible to speakers of languages other than English. Some studies have noted inaccuracies in Google’s translations in medical settings, leading to incomprehensible instructions to patients. Downloadable data should also be made available in languages other than English on the website or by request.
Recommendations to Improve Data Collection, Transparency, and Accessibility for Students in the Foster System at the Federal Level
- Congress should require additional data collection and reporting about students in the foster system at the federal level. When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA) is reauthorized, Congress should require that all data related to students in the foster system are cross-tabulated by gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, and English learner status. Additionally, Congress should consider including “ever” in the foster system indicators for graduation rates, high school non-completion rates, high school equivalency (HSE) diploma rates, and state assessment results.
- The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) should require states to include data about students in the foster system in its biennial Civil Rights Data Collection. The USDOE can also play an important role in increasing our understanding of the specific needs of students in the foster system who are disproportionately Black, Native, and have disabilities. The CRDC should collect disaggregated data regarding students in the foster system as it relates to enrollment, attendance, discipline, HSE program participation, advanced course participation, and retention.