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How Do We Understand Poverty Without Relying on Federal Free-Meal Statistics?

Eligibility for federal meals programs has been the ubiquitous shorthand for students' poverty level for decades, but as more districts move to provide free meals for all their students, it becomes "an increasingly poor proxy" for individual socioeconomic levels of students, according to the National Forum on Education Statistics (and, you know, lots of other folks).

That's why the forum today released a guide for school officials and education researchers outlining different ways to identify students' socioeconomic statusThe guide evolved in part from a task force for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which recommended that schools and education agencies go beyond the traditional measure of family income to a child's family, community, and school supports for learning.

The guide notes that even in schools that do not make all their students eligible for free meals, most school staff and educators do not have access to data on students' eligibility, and federal free and reduced-price meal programs "eligibility status is largely a measure of economic status and does not incorporate other components understood to be relevant to the measurement of [socioeconomic status], such as parent/guardian occupation and education." 

So what exactly do you need to know about a student's life if your goal is not just to feed her, but to secure her a spot in preschool, or track her risk of dropping out of school, or evaluate the effectiveness of her school's reading curriculum? Should those three goals even use the same measure?

The guide offers pros and cons for different measures, including:

  • Methods that copy federal meals eligibility, such as asking for income verification from the student or family or noting that the student is homeless or in foster care;
  • Family resources, such as parents' education and occupation; and
  • Community resources, such as neighborhood and school district income levels.

However, the forum authors conclude that no individual measure should be used on its own, and each measure should be used in the context for which it was created. Having more targeted measures of poverty could give a more nuanced picture of how students experience and are affected by poverty, as well as pinpoint better leverage to help students and their families resist its damage. 


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