Panel Paper: Using Linked Administrative Data to Understand the Relationship Between Foster Care and Children’s Academic Achievement

Friday, November 3, 2017
Dusable (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Vanessa Ríos-Salas, Maria Cancian, Lawrence Berger and Jennifer L. Noyes, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Using linked administrative data, and exploiting detailed information on child welfare caseload dynamics and the timing of transitions in to and out of foster care, we investigate the relationship between out-of-home placement (OHP) and educational outcomes. Children with child protective services (CPS) involvement are at increased risk of adverse educational experiences and outcomes relative to the general population of children. Yet, the implication of these gaps for policy and practice depends critically on whether placement in care causes adverse experiences and outcomes, or whether it is simply a marker of pre-existing disadvantage.

Using linked administrative records from the child welfare and educational systems, we document children experiencing OHP have considerably poorer school achievement than the general population of children, but find considerably smaller differences in achievement between children experiencing OHP and those receiving Food Stamps, and relatively few differences in achievement between children experiencing OHP and other CPS-involved children. OLS regressions with child-specific fixed effects suggest no differences in achievement by level of CPS-involvement. This analysis also provided suggestive evidence that children perform slightly worse in the early stages of placement or during short placements than after being in care for a longer period, raising questions regarding the potential positive relationship between OHP and educational outcomes in some circumstances.

To begin to address this possibility, we analyze the relation between OHP and educational outcomes for a sample of 1,649 children experiencing a full school term (September to June) in OHP. We first compare these children’s reading and mathematics standardized test scores measured after spending an entire school term at home—but prior to spending a subsequent full school term in OHP—to their scores after spending an entire school term in OHP. We then examine the role of three potential mediators: school attendance, school instability (number of schools attended in a school term), and school quality. Each of these factors may (1) be influenced by OHP status, (2) be associated with academic achievement, and (3) fully or partially explain associations between OHP and academic achievement. We find evidence school achievement improves with OHP, and that school attendance (but not school stability or school quality) substantially mediates the positive association between OHP and school achievement. These findings suggest that, at least for children experiencing a relatively long OHP spell (consisting of at least a full school term), OHP is on average associated with increased reading achievement as a result of increased attendance (relative to the period before placement).

Given the relatively high frequency of CPS involvement and OHP (e.g. among Black children over 1 in 5 will be confirmed for maltreatment, and over 1 in 10 will experience OHP by age 18), and the fundamental public responsibility for children placed in state care, it is critical to better understand the implications of OHP for child wellbeing, including educational outcomes. This paper illustrates the utility of administrative data for the required analysis.