What Can We Learn from Rhode Island’s New Data about Students Experiencing Foster Care?

By Mauriell Amechi

Academic preparation in high school is one of the strongest predictors of college enrollment and choice. But access to high-quality schooling experiences remains elusive for young people experiencing foster care. Although youth in care typically aspire to attain a college education, it is well-documented that they face severe barriers, including disproportionate exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspensions), grade retention due to the delayed transfer of academic records, and school instability driven by unstable foster care placements, to name a few. A growing number of states, which now includes Rhode Island, have implemented data-sharing agreements to better track and assess the unique needs of students in care, but what can we learn from this new evidence about fostering student success?

Newly available evidence points to severe academic barriers among students with foster care experience in the Rhode Island education system. For example, during the 2020-21 academic year, only 13 percent of students in foster care met expectations on the SAT’s reading component, compared to 47 percent of all students. Achievement rates on the SAT’s math component were even worse. These harmful disparities call for swift action from the state government. There are concrete steps states can take to improve these outcomes, including gaining a better understanding of the lived experiences of young people in foster care, developing an educational intervention centered on their needs, and allocating increased funding to drive long-term change.

In a recent blog, I advocated for adopting state legislation to mandate state education departments and local child welfare agencies to revise and update current enrollment data systems to include students in foster care. Although the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) maintains records of children in foster care and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) tracks student educational outcomes, the two departments had never previously implemented a data-sharing agreement to capture the academic success metrics for young people impacted by foster care.

Since the 2017-18 academic year, Rhode Island school leaders have required all 10th and 11th graders to complete the PSAT 10 and SAT–standardized tests that gauge college readiness across multiple subject areas, including reading comprehension, mathematics, and writing. Standardized exams, such as the ACT or SAT, are still widely used by state education departments to determine whether students are college ready. Even as a growing number of selective colleges have moved entirely away from this requirement or made it optional, standardized test scores are still a baseline measure of college preparation.

Research shows that low-income students accrue many benefits from increased school spending–for instance, improved high school graduation rates, higher wages as adults, and lower odds of becoming impoverished. But even as a state that nationally ranks near the top in spending per student, Rhode Island youth experiencing foster care graduate at disproportionately lower rates than their peers and perform poorly on state assessments across the board. For example, during the 2020-21 academic year, only 25 percent of test takers in care met the PSAT reading benchmarks. Similarly, they performed poorly on the math component: fewer than 15 percent of test takers met exam benchmarks.

“Where do we go from here?†A critical question left on the mind of various concerned stakeholders and included within the statewide report’s title. Lisa Guillette, executive director of the nonprofit Foster Forward, said state education leaders should invite input from youth with personal lived experience, among others, before implementing policy reforms. “I think the best next step is to have public conversations with this data and the people most affected by the data. We need to [center the voices of] young people who are experiencing foster care, we need to be talking to their biological and foster families, and we need to talk to educators in the schools,†she said.

Below I offer three actionable steps to school leaders for addressing K-12 student equity gaps among young people in care.

Establish a Youth Council. For school districts with the largest student population, administrators should establish a youth council to center the voices and perspectives of those most affected by underachievement on state assessments. Youth-led boards can also serve as a feedback channel for policymakers, education administrators, and stakeholders within social services agencies. More importantly, these councils will offer students in care productive outlets to express themselves and develop transferable life skills, including leadership, public speaking, and team-building.

Develop K-12 School Intervention to Narrow the Learning Gap. Improving pathways to college and career opportunities is not simply a matter of increasing high school completion. Therefore, interventions centered on closing the learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic are critical to ensure that all learners have the knowledge and fundamental skills for successful college and career pathways. For example, in 2012, the Kids in School Rule! (KISR) intervention was introduced in Cincinnati Public Schools to combat common academic challenges among students in care, such as school instability, exclusionary discipline policies, and inequities in school achievement and attainment. Rhode Island public school leaders have an opportunity to replicate this successful program intervention in partnership with DCYF.

Increase State Funding to Support K-12 School Interventions. With the release of new evidence uncovering poor student achievement on state assessments, state education departments must prioritize and allocate adequate financial resources to support one of their most overlooked student populations. Increasing funding for foster youth-centered interventions is perhaps one of the most impactful ways to address troubling student achievement issues.

In light of the new student success metrics, there is little doubt that Rhode Island students in foster care experienced severe learning setbacks even before the pandemic. But as one state official has already declared, a swift response is crucial. “Too much time has already been wasted and too many foster children have already left school without the education they need and deserve,†Rhode Island state Rep. Julie Casimiro said. Rhode Island education leaders, policymakers, and child welfare agencies have the opportunity to enact robust, community-informed, systems-level reforms to ensure that these young people in care have the best possible chance to succeed later in life.

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