Arizona's Invisible Achievement Gap

A first-ever report on the educational achievement gap of Arizona's foster youth was based on findings from a study funded by the Arizona Venture Fund for Quality Education at the Arizona Community Foundation.

Report shows kids in foster care underperform academically

Download your copy of the report on Arizona's Invisible Achievement Gap.

Arizona students in foster care persistently underperform academically compared to their other classmates, according to Arizona’s Invisible Achievement Gap: Education Outcomes of Students in Foster Care in the State’s Public Schools, a report that documents this overlooked problem for the first time. It indicates that students in Arizona’s foster care system trail all other students—even those identified with academic risk factors such as low socioeconomic status, limited English language proficiency, and disabilities.

The report was funded by the Arizona Community Foundation through its Arizona Venture Fund for Quality Education, and was produced by the non-partisan education research agency WestEd.

View the Arizona's Invisible Achievement Gap report.

This investment follows $625,000 in funding provided by ACF and Helios Education Foundation over the past three years for a pilot program that pairs foster-care students in Pima County schools with an “education champion” and works to improve tracking of student achievement over time.

Findings from the study

Using data from the 2012-2013 school year, the study underlying this report found that only 61 percent of students in foster care met or exceeded standards in reading and only 40 percent met or exceeded standards in mathematics. Those rates are far below the percentages of low socioeconomic status students, who met or exceeded standards in reading (71 percent) and in mathematics (54 percent).

As a group, high school students in foster care had the highest dropout rates of all Arizona students, at 18 percent, and a graduation rate of 33 percent—less than half the state average of 78 percent. The study found that students in foster care were more likely than other at-risk student groups to change schools during the school year, to be enrolled in low-performing schools, or to be diagnosed with disabilities.

Data from state agencies

Concern about the education outcomes of the state’s K-12 students in foster care has been rising in recent years, but data about their academic performance has been difficult to compile because Arizona’s education and child welfare systems operate independently and have lacked a mechanism for sharing information. Recognizing the need to better serve these children, the Arizona Department of Education and the state’s Department of Child Safety came together to provide the data underlying this look at how these Arizona children fare in school compared to their peers who are not in foster care.

“The findings show that Arizona students in foster care have unique characteristics that justify their identification as a separate at-risk student subgroup,” says report co-author Vanessa Barrat. “These findings serve as new evidence for policymakers to use in pursuing efforts to improve the academic success of students in foster care.”

Vince Yanez, Executive Director for Education and Public Policy at the Arizona Community Foundation, hopes the report will lead to the creation of a statewide cross-agency foster youth education program.

“The report highlights the unique challenges facing children in foster care,” says Yanez. “Their lives are touched by many different systems and just like it took ADE and DCS to collaborate to share data needed to produce this report, it will require many different state agencies to reduce the achievement gap.”

Pete Hershberger, Director of FosterEd Arizona, says that creating a multi-agency approach requires leadership from the Governor’s Office.

“When we remove a child due to abuse or neglect, or the risk of abuse or neglect, we as a state take responsibility for that child, for their safety, health and well-being,” said Hershberger, a former state legislator. “It is not the responsibility of any one state agency, but of multiple state agencies. That is why funding for a foster youth education program should come from the general fund and not from the budget of any one agency. We ask the Governor’s Office to take the lead in establishing a statewide program.”

Building awareness

The Invisible Achievement Gap report resulted in compelling coverage in statewide media, including a front-page story and editorial in the Arizona Republic as well as a featured article in the Arizona Daily Star.

Read the Arizona Republic Editorial

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