Almost 60% of American students receive lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides free- and reduced-price lunches (FRPL) to students in households who demonstrate economic disadvantage. Income information is based on parent report of household income in the month preceding application to the program. Because NSLP enrollment has been correlated with lower student achievement and is an indicator of how impoverished 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 U.S. Census Bureau, the University of California at Irvine, and NORC at the University of Chicago recently examined how accurately FRPL enrollment measures actual income and educational disadvantage by comparing IRS income records with students' lunch enrollment and ac.... Specifically, researchers examined the records of all eighth graders 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 enrollment, IRS income records, and eighth grade ELA achievement scores on the California Achievement Test and the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
Results showed that school lunch program enrollment explains the relationship between economic disadvantage and student achievement better than IRS-reported annual income. Compared to their non-NSLP peers, California free-lunch students scored 0.40 standard deviations (SD) lower on the 8th grade ELA test, and the reduced-lunch students scored 0.20 lower than those not enrolled. In Oregon, the FRPL students scored 0.36 SD lower than those not enrolled. In comparison, when using IRS-reported household income to explain ELA achievement, economically disadvantaged students scored approximately 0.15 SD lower than students appearing to be ineligible for FRPL in one California district and 0.26 SD lower across Oregon public schools. In other words, FRPL enrollment accounted for 16% of the variance in ELA 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.