Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

An Exploration of Foster Youth Academic Performance Trajectories and Predictors of Group Membership


For many maltreated youth between the ages of eight and fourteen, challenges associated with the family environment and entry into foster care placement compromises their ability to function and learn. Though prior research indicates that the educational attainment of foster youth is poor, negative performance is reported as though it is a unitary phenomenon among foster students, overlooking population heterogeneity. While collectively foster youth may have increased risk due to maltreatment and removal from home, correlates including educational risks prior to entry, child welfare case characteristics, and residential and school changes may be associated with differences in foster youth academic performance trajectories.

Performance levels on the California Standards Test in English language arts and math are followed longitudinally for four years for first-time entries to foster care from two California counties between school years 2003 and 2006. In addition to an all foster youth sample, foster youth are matched closely to students in the general population by Propensity Score Matching on key educational risks and performance level the year prior to foster care entry. Covariates include achievement gap variables such as ethnicity, disability, and English language learner status in addition to six child welfare case characteristics and five time sensitive residential and school change factors. Group-based analysis and multinomial logistic regression are used to determine the number and type of distinct academic performance trajectories and to examine whether group membership is associated with out of home placement, education risk factors, and child welfare case characteristics.

As variance within academic performance is indicated by six distinct English language arts and five math academic performance trajectories, findings support the current research approach to explore heterogeneity with educationally vulnerable populations. Analyses indicate that foster youth and comparison student academic performance trajectories in English and math are similar which suggests that educational vulnerability for foster youth is related to characteristics that exist prior to placement in out of home care. These findings are echoed in the foster youth sample, where pre-placement educational risks are more salient predictors of negative trajectories than experiences associated with foster care placement. For some foster youth, residential and school changes lead to decreased adjustment and academic performance. In particular, poor English academic trajectories are associated with same year normative school transitions and entrance into foster care. Overall, lower performing trajectory groups are defined by an increased number of education risks present at entry and residential and school changes in the first year of placement.

Group-based analysis can be an important statistical method for both child welfare and education personnel. Youth entering out of home placement or those identified as at-risk are not homogenous groups. Rather, there are meaningful subgroups within these populations that follow distinctive educational trajectories. By identifying clusters or groups of student trajectories, profiles of characteristics within and among groups can aid in uncovering educational strengths and challenges and lead to policies and practices which support improved academic trajectories for vulnerable youth.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View