The Data Quality Campaign recently released a set of fast facts for policymakers and system leaders about the importance and challenge of accessing accurate student poverty data.
Accurate student poverty data is critical to identify students who may be facing challenges, measure their growth, and ensure that they get the supports that will help them succeed. Since 1946, the National School Lunch Program has been the primary source of student poverty data. Traditionally, schools determined FRL status through individual household income forms, which families voluntarily filled out.
In 2010, Congress introduced a change to the program known as the community eligibility provision (CEP). Beginning in the 2014–15 school year, the change allowed schools in which 40 percent or more of students were directly certified as being from low-income families to provide free meals to all students.
The CEP also has had an unintended consequence: it has made FRL status less useful as a measure of student poverty. States now use different strategies to measure student poverty in CEP schools, including direct certification counts, applying multipliers to identified student percentages, or relying on FRL data collected prior to the CEP. However, there is a lack of consensus on the comparative value and accuracy of these alternatives. As the CEP program expands and FRL status data become less accurate, policymakers will need to identify a new way to accurately measure student poverty.
Other measures like actual household income, parental education, student mobility, and receipt of other social safety net programs may provide a more detailed, accurate understanding of where supports are most urgently needed. Researchers at the University of Missouri and the Data Quality Campaign are currently exploring new approaches to measuring student poverty. Texas, for example, allocates school funding based on multiple metrics including the local area median income level, average parental educational attainment, percentage of single-family households, and homeownership rate.