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

Unhealthy school lunches nibble away academic performance

A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper looks at the effect of offering healthier school lunches on end-of-year test scores for pupils in California.

Michael L Anderson and colleagues analysed data collected over a five-year period (academic years 2008/2009 to 2012/2013) from around 9,700 schools that reported test scores on California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting exam, a state-wide test given to all pupils in grades 2 to 11 (Years 3 to 13). In order to determine the link between food quality and pupil achievement, they also collected data from the California Department of Education on school districts’ meal vendors for the same time span. Over that five-year period, about 12% of California schools contracted an outside company to provide lunch for at least one school year. The nutritional value of the school lunch menus was analysed by nutritionists at the Nutrition Policy Institute using the Healthy Eating Index.

The results of the study found that in years when schools offered a healthy lunch menu, pupil test scores were on average higher (effect size +0.03 to +0.04). In addition, test scores for pupils who qualified for reduced-price or free school lunches, (and therefore more likely to eat the healthy lunches), increased by about 40% in comparison to pupils who didn’t receive free school lunches.  The positive effect of healthy lunches on academic achievement persisted for the duration of a long-term contract.

Source: School lunch quality and academic performance (March 2017), NBER Working Paper No. 23218, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)