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Evaluation of Education Programs Focused on Foster Youth

Strengthening education support systems for foster youth

About half of children in foster care graduate high school on time—well below the more than 80 percent overall U.S. on-time graduation rate. Foster youth are less likely to attend college and earn a degree, the average reading level for foster youth is lower, and they are more likely to change schools, be suspended or expelled, and be absent from school.

An increased focus on this critical issue in recent years has sparked legislative measures and other initiatives to improve the educational outlook of foster youth. RTI is involved in three programs that share this objective.

Evaluating Three Innovative Approaches to Better Education Outcomes for Foster Youth

In our role as evaluators for Education Equals Partnership (California), which focuses on preschool through secondary school, and FosterEd (Arizona, California, New Mexico), which focuses on elementary and secondary school, we collect, analyze, and report on quantitative indicators such as attendance, number of school moves, behavior incidents, and graduation rates, as well as both quantitative and qualitative information about the support that foster youth students receive. Our job is to identify, with practitioners and funders, what’s working, what isn’t, and what needs more attention.

To support the California College Pathways initiative, we analyzed campus data from 31 participating community colleges and universities and summarized these findings in a report that provides new insights into the educational experiences of foster youth attending these California colleges. We expect to continue supporting the initiative as additional years of data become available.

Education Equals Partnership

Since 2012, the Stuart Foundation’s Education Equals Partnership has strived to advance education support services for foster youth in demonstration sites in Fresno, Orange, and Sacramento counties in California.

The program serves youth from preschool through secondary school. We support the Education Equals Partnership through a developmental evaluation framework, which provides flexibility when analyzing a program that is still evolving. Under this approach, our evaluators actively participate in the partnership and support ongoing improvement by helping program leaders use data to inform decisions.

Our evaluation of the Education Equals Partnership considers several indicators to determine whether the program is achieving its goals, including

  • Percentage of foster youth ages 3–5 who are enrolled in preschool or kindergarten
  • Percentage of K–12 foster youth who remain in one school throughout the school year
  • Percentage with attendance rates above 90 percent
  • Percentage who are suspended or given other disciplinary actions at school
  • Percentage who are on track to complete the 15 “a-g” course requirements of the University of California and California State University systems to be eligible for admission
  • Percentage who graduate high school.

We are also helping Foundation partners identify and track the development and effectiveness of new infrastructure components and practice changes.


Developed in Indiana in 2009, the National Center for Youth Law’s FosterEd program has since expanded to include pilot programs in Santa Cruz and Los Angeles counties in California, Pima County, Arizona, and Lea County, New Mexico. Among the FosterEd program’s primary objectives is to identify and support Educational Champions for foster youth—a biological parent or long-term caregiver, or volunteer trained by FosterEd.

FosterEd then expands the foster youths’ support groups to include representatives from their schools, child welfare agencies, court-appointed special advocates, coaches, or extended family. Finally, FosterEd assesses the strengths and needs of foster youth, establishes individualized education plans, sets goals for the youth and their Educational Champions, and facilitates collaboration among the extended teams to support these goals and track progress.

Using a developmental evaluation approach, we actively engage with the program developers, implementers, and community partners to bring data as it emerges from the evaluation back to the partners to discuss what is working and where adjustments may be needed. Our approach includes collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data and developing an evaluation indicators matrix, which groups indicators into three sections:

  • Infrastructure indicators reflect systems, staff, and products needed to launch and support FosterEd in a given county.
  • Practice indicators include the number of youth and Educational Champions involved in the program and the number of volunteers trained.
  • Youth, program, and state outcomes include measures such as the number of educational goals set for participants, whether members of the adult support teams felt the program helped them collaborate with other members of their team, and data sharing between the state education and child welfare agencies.

California College Pathways

With over 30 participating campuses, California College Pathways is a statewide public and private partnership that provides resources and leadership to schools and community organizations to help foster youth succeed in postsecondary education. The partnership’s goal is to increase the number of foster youth in California who earn a college degree or certificate.

We are helping California College Pathways with one of its key initiatives—building a shared measurement system that allows partners to make informed decisions regarding policies, programs, and practices. Each campus collects and reports milestone and momentum metrics that reflect student progress and outcomes. We used this data to draft a baseline report and will continue to support the program by evaluating future data and comparing them with the baseline.

Initial data from 31 campuses indicated that foster youth enrolled in community colleges and four-year degree programs must overcome greater academic challenges than other students, and they are not being adequately served by federal and state programs, including financial aid programs.

California College Pathways aims to counter these challenges by supporting foster youth programs by providing training and technical assistance for emerging and established campus programs, advocating for policies and regulations to improve higher education outcomes for foster youth, and collaborating to create a more seamless transition for foster youth from high school to college.

Improving Program Models, Raising Awareness, and Supporting Inclusive Policy

Our evaluations of these foster youth education initiatives have helped program designers and implementers improve their models and practices. One major lesson learned through the Education Equals and FosterEd evaluations is the need to support a greater level of flexibility across counties so that the localities can tailor the approaches and practices in ways that leverage their contextual resources and adapt to any local challenges or limitations.

The evaluations have begun to document that providing focused support for foster youth—by both connecting and engaging the adults in their lives and establishing, supporting, and monitoring education goals—is associated with increased preschool enrollment, improved attendance, and increased grade point averages.

Working with our partners, we also have helped increase the awareness among educators, child welfare professionals, and policy makers of the unique educational needs of foster youth. With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, foster youth are included for the first time in federal education law with landmark provisions aimed at improving their educational outcomes.