Is free and reduced-price lunch a valid measure of educational disadvantage?

Almost 60% of American pupils receive lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides free- and reduced-price lunches (FRPL) to pupils in households who demonstrate economic disadvantage. Income information is based on parent report of household income in the month preceding application to the programme. Because NSLP enrolment has been correlated with lower pupil achievement and is an indicator of how disadvantaged a school’s population is, this classification plays an important role in how funds are allocated to schools and how schools are classified in educational research.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the US Census Bureau, the University of California at Irvine, and NORC at the University of Chicago recently examined how accurately FRPL enrolment measures actual income and educational disadvantage by comparing IRS income records with pupils’ lunch enrolment and achievement records. Specifically, researchers examined the records of all eighth grade (Year 9) pupils in a California public school district from 2008-2014 (n=14,000) and in Oregon public schools from 2004-2014 (n=363,000), examining the relationship between FRPL enrolment, IRS income records, and eighth grade English language achievement scores on the California Achievement Test and the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Results showed that school lunch programme enrolment explains the relationship between economic disadvantage and pupil achievement better than IRS-reported annual income. Compared to their non-NSLP peers, California free-lunch pupils scored 0.40 standard deviations (SD) lower on the eighth grade English language test, and the reduced-lunch pupils scored 0.20 lower than those not enrolled. In Oregon, the FRPL pupils scored 0.36 SD lower than those not enrolled. In comparison, when using IRS-reported household income to explain English language achievement, economically disadvantaged pupils scored approximately 0.15 SD lower than pupils appearing to be ineligible for FRPL in one California district and 0.26 SD lower across Oregon public schools. In other words, FRPL enrolment accounted for 16% of the variance in English language scores, whereas IRS data only accounted for 13% of the variance. This indicates that FRLP appears to capture aspects of disadvantage that IRS data do not.

Source: Is free and reduced-price lunch a valid measure of educational disadvantage? (December 2018), Educational Researcher, Volume: 47 issue: 9

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