Connecting Data to Improve Education Outcomes for Foster Youth

by Stephanie Ludwig and Anna Jacobi

Despite bureaucratic roadblocks, states and counties across the United States are managing to broker two unwieldy systems- foster care and education- to mine data that will clarify the educational status of children and youths in foster care.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restricts access to educational records to parents and legal guardians. Researchers attempting to gain access to these records, to determine foster youths’ strengths and deficiencies, often face bureaucratic roadblocks due to privacy concerns.

Some states, such as Florida and Illinois, have succeeded in linking education data to other large systems such as social services, higher education and juvenile justice, while California has begun to catch up with state and county level projects that will match and compare educational and social services data.

Having completed a four-county pilot project, researchers from the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research are now working on creating a statewide social services data link with CAL-PASS (the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success), which uses data voluntarily uploaded by school districts.

Kristine Frerer, a research associate for the California Child Welfare Performance Indicators Project, says that the project hopes to answer some of the many questions about education for foster children that have been unanswered until now due to lack of data.

“We don’t really know how foster kids are doing educationally on a state level,” says Frerer. “We don’t know strengths and weakness of different programs.”

She said that FERPA posed a challenge to getting the project off the ground.

“It was kind of a nightmare,” says Frerer.

Because of FERPA restrictions, she said, they will not be able to update the data on a regular basis because the process of extracting and re-matching the data sample is too time-consuming and labor intensive.

After the process of de-identifying the data to preserve foster youths’ privacy, the project will link social services’ data on foster youth to educational data such as standardized test data, California High School Exit Exam results, free- and reduced-lunch status and post-secondary level coursework and graduation.

“States are mandated that they have to do longitudinal education system data and, even though it’s a federal mandate, they’re woefully behind,” says Frerer. “I think it’s a big effort, Los Angeles for example has 81 school districts that keep their own data.”

Another large project linking data from the California education and social services systems is also underway. The project is a partnership of the West Ed Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, the California Department of Social Services and the California Department of Education.

Beth-Ann Berliner, Senior Research Associate at West Ed, said the agreement took two years to come together in order to ensure the information was kept secure.

“All of the data transfer was done through a secure server,” says Berliner. “We are currently working with personally identifiable data from both services with the sole intention of making a match and finding every single student in foster care.”

Her partner on the project, Senior Research Associate Vanessa Barrat, says it has been a tricky process that has been eased by a shared commitment from the Department of Education and the Department of Social Services.

“The goal is to be able to report on the achievement of children on foster care compared to the achievement of kids not in the foster care system,” says Barrat.

The project proceeded with few FERPA-related obstacles, according to Barrat.

Other states have used data exchange to implement programs to enable foster youth to succeed in their schools. Illinois uses a system known as SchoolMinder to enable child welfare workers to find children foster homes near their school or district. After implementing SchoolMinder, the average distance of foster home changes dropped from 22.5 to 11.4 miles. Pennsylvania has designated education liaisons in each child welfare office and provides child welfare workers with an educational screening tool.

Some say the future of information exchange lies in creating large state databases so that agencies serving vulnerable populations like foster children can communicate more effectively.

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