For New Yorker Anthony Robinson, certain experiences stand out about attending school while in foster care, beginning at age 10 — illustrating how he felt unseen and unsupported. Among them is being put in classes a grade level behind where he had been previously and quickly becoming bored.
That led to the desire to just cut out. “If I felt like the material wasn’t significant, or I knew it, I would just leave,” said Robinson, now 27 and a coordinator of educational and vocational resources for a foster care nonprofit serving New York City foster youth.
He said his peers shared numerous challenges common to life in the child welfare system: seemingly ever-shifting schools and caregivers, traveling long distances from far-off foster homes and trying to stay focused when family connections feel scary and tenuous. Foster youth also experience higher rates of suspension, absenteeism and school instability, and lower math and test scores than their peers who live at home. “You can miss out on school if people aren’t checking up on you.”
Advocates for foster youth like Robinson and child welfare scholars agree: Problems that aren’t measured and defined are difficult to fix. Yet while periodic reviews show foster youth struggle far more than their peers to succeed in school, consistent, specific and reliable data on their performance in school does not exist.
“The population of foster students are a group of students who struggle significantly academically,” said Chantal Hinds, a researcher of education equity for foster youth at the think tank Next100. Yet, she added, “you can’t really get to the root of it without the data.”
Hinds authored a report last year that found that while the state collects and publishes a variety of statistics on the educational outcomes for foster youth, “what is available is inconsistent, confusing, and unreliable.”
What is known is that the data published by the New York State Education Department shows that in recent years, only about half of students in foster care have graduated high school on time.
The most recent data available in the state’s public reporting portal for the 2021-2022 school year shows little improvement over the previous two years among foster youth’s rates of graduation: Statewide, only 51% of students in foster care graduated high school — much lower than the 87% graduation rate across all high school students.
For instance, the reported data shows that in Orange County, just four of 13 students in the cohort of 2022 graduating students who were in foster care graduated high school within four years. In Westchester County, five of 11 students in foster care graduated. Suffolk County reported 15 of 27 students in foster care — or 56% — graduated.
In some cases, the data appears incomplete. Albany, which had more than 200 kids in foster care in 2021 and 2022, according to data from the Office of Children and Family Services, reportedly had just four students in foster care in the high school graduation cohort in 2022, and no data was included in the state’s portal about what percentage of them graduated. Counties with smaller foster youth populations, including Allegany and Fulton, also each had fewer than four students in foster care in the graduating cohorts, and no data on their graduation rates were included.
In addition to graduation rates, the department publishes data on enrollment, students with disabilities, students learning English for the first time, and state assessment results, among other metrics for foster youth. The data can be disaggregated by gender, race and ethnicity.
That scope goes beyond the requirements of the 2016 Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law that mandated states to report educational data on students in the foster system beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.
Hinds is among the educational researchers who say data being kept by New York and other states nationwide — while improved since the passage of ESSA — is not sufficient to drill down on where schools are failing to support foster youth and to serve their particular needs. They want attendance, retention and discipline rates tracked, as well as information about the long-term impact of their foster system experiences on their education. Hinds says the quality of some of the data currently being reported is also a concern, as it appears to conflict with reports from other state and local sources.
New York City and upstate county agencies collect education-related information on youth in the foster system, but it’s fractured, Hinds found. And there is no centralized place to find information about the broader education experiences of students across the foster system in the state.
Representatives from the New York State Education Department did not respond to requests for comment.
The count of students needing or receiving special education services also varied across figures reported by the state education department, the Office of Children and Family Services, and a local New York City database.
To be sure, the data collection is not simple. Keeping track of students who are in foster care — given that many children enter and exit multiple times, and remain in foster care for varying lengths of time, from a few days to years. Individual schools and school districts have to reach agreements with local child welfare agencies to merge data sets. What’s more, the very definition of “foster youth” can vary between agencies.
A one-time study of foster youth graduation rates produced by the New York City Office of the Mayor last year took a unique approach that educational scholars praised. It defined foster students as young people who’d spent at least seven days in foster care in the four years after 9th grade.
In contrast, many state agencies, including New York’s education department, only count students who spend one day or more in foster care during their fourth year of high school. That leaves out foster youth who may have been adopted, taken into a guardianship or reunified with parents prior to 12th grade. It also fails to count those who may have dropped out.
“YOU CAN’T REALLY GET TO THE ROOT OF IT WITHOUT THE DATA.”— CHANTAL HINDS
The authors of the city report called such an approach “misleading” and “problematic.”
“There’s likely an undercount,” Hinds said of the graduation rates reported by the state.
The recent research from New York City has put into new focus the scope of the challenges students in foster care face.
As an example of the mismatch, the in-depth study from the Office of the Mayor’s Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence revealed graduation rates that are even lower than the state figures listed for New York City. The city research office found only 25% of the city’s public school students who spent time in foster care graduated on time in 2019. The state’s data website did not include numbers for New York City for the 2018-2019 school year, but it reported foster youth graduation rates between 42% and 45% in the three years that followed.
The recent attention on those disparities prompted the city’s Department of Education to announce a new office in 2021 focused specifically on foster youth. After a long-delayed hiring process, the office for students in foster care is now fully staffed with nine employees, including support coordinators, a data manager, an interagency coordinator and a training and policy associate.
“That would not have existed if people weren’t paying attention to those numbers,” said Erika Palmer, a supervising attorney for Advocates for Children.
Crystal Charles, a senior policy analyst for the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, said longer term tracking is what’s needed.
“A more longitudinal study tracking through age 26 so we have a more realistic idea of the outcomes would be helpful,” Charles said.
New York City is making steps toward collecting more information: a law passed unanimously by city leaders that is awaiting Mayor Eric Adams’ signature will require the Department of Education to begin releasing more data on students who are in temporary housing and foster care. That includes statistics about how many students are receiving disability evaluations, special education, therapy and transportation help, as well as rates of suspensions and calls to emergency services, all broken down by school district, school and grade level.
Educational experts advise the state to also track chronic absenteeism, expulsions and school stability for students in foster care, as well as details about how their length of time in the child welfare system correlates with educational outcomes.
Robinson, who draws from his experience both as a former foster youth and a coordinator of educational services for foster youth, is among those calling for more comprehensive data.
“Once you dig deeply, you can understand more about the bussing situation, and making sure they have adequate bussing, making sure they have an Individualized Education Program and that people are following up on that IEP — that they have access to tutoring,” he said. “The state has started, but we have a long way to go.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.