For the first time, California education officials have separated out the standardized test scores of the state's foster youth — and advocates now have sobering proof of what they long suspected: These students are learning far less than their peers.
In 2014-15, the first year scores of the new, harder state tests were reported, 18.8% of students in the foster care system met or exceeded standards in English/language arts, compared with 44.2% of their non-foster peers statewide. In math, 11.8% of these students reached or beat the benchmarks, compared with 33.8% of non-foster students.
Foster students also had somewhat lower rates of participation on the tests. In English, 27,651 foster students — or 89.8% of those enrolled — were tested, as opposed to 96.1% of non-foster students. In math, that number was 27,475, or 89.3%, compared with 96.3% of their non-foster peers.
The low numbers, experts say, reflect the level of disruption in the lives of children in California's foster system. Only two-thirds stay in the same school each year, according to a study by the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning at WestEd, a nonprofit educational research organization. One in 10 have attended three schools during the course of one year.
Each move costs them between four and six months of learning progress, says the nonprofit Legal Center for Foster Care & Education, which provides information to people serving children in the foster system.
"Young people in foster care are too often moved from placement to placement by the child welfare system," Jill Rowland, attorney and education program director of the nonprofit Alliance for Children's Rights, said in a statement. She said she hopes to use the information "to ignite a movement to address the problem."
The nonprofit alliance's goal is to protect the rights of impoverished, abused and neglected youth. Foster students' scores, Rowland noted, were comparable to those of English learners.
Stigmas don't help, said Alex Torres, 19, a graduate of Bonita High School who is currently in extended foster care. "We have this stereotype: You've been through trouble and you're only going to bring trouble," he said. "That's why it's hard for us to make friends with people on the higher end of those test scores."
California has passed a number of laws aimed at improving foster children's educational achievement. In 2015, the state added $10 million to the budget to fund a new law that helped make sure that county education offices' Foster Youth Services Coordination Programs could serve all sorts of foster students. Recently, the Local Control Funding Formula, a new school funding law that pays for education based on a student's level of need, singled out foster students for special attention.
The broken-out results for foster students in the 2014-15 tests were due on July 1, according to the funding law — but were released late last week. California Department of Education spokesman Robert Oakes said the delay was caused by "other data-producing priorities with competing deadlines."
"We would love for it to be faster," Rowland said. "But this [getting the results] is really groundbreaking."
The state plans to release results for the most recent round of testing, in the 2015-16 school year, in early 2017. And while the funding law requires the state to report these numbers in every even year, the state has said it will do so for each year.
When he was a child, Torres' parents moved around a lot. As he got older, he desperately wanted to stay in one place for longer. Because he faced emotional and physical abuse at home, the friends he made at school became his support system.
From kindergarten on, he attended seven different schools. Four years ago, he entered foster care.
"After the second move from foster care, I became numb and didn't care about socializing," he said.
He didn't expect to go to college. He spoke of plans to do so, he said, simply to shake off social workers.
But at Bonita High, he met a counselor devoted to helping students in foster care — and she kept telling him how important college was.
Now he's at Mt. San Antonio College, a community college in Walnut, studying to be a nurse or EMT.