A Better Definition of Economic Disadvantage?

Is free- and reduced-price lunch still a good measure of economic disadvantage? Historically, this measure has been used to drive policy and funding. For example, states, including North Carolina, disaggregate student achievement data under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and for state accountability purposes. Understanding how groups of students are doing is critical for putting targeted strategies and investment in place for improving outcomes.


Today, eligibility for free- and reduced-price lunch may no longer provide an accurate picture of economic disadvantage. Since 2010, the federal government has allowed schools and districts in high poverty areas to allow community eligibility for this benefit. If more than 40 percent of students are income-eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, schools and districts can choose to confer eligibility across the board to all students. This policy change was aimed at increasing the number of students receiving adequate nutrition, decreasing administrative hassle for families, schools, districts and the federal government, and reducing stigma around school meals.

An unintended consequence is that it may no longer provide an accurate way to disaggregate which students are living with economic disadvantage. This blog from Brookings outlines a new method some states are using to disaggregate students living with economic disadvantage:  identifying disadvantaged students based on their families’ participation in programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and the foster care system. Connecting state data systems to directly share this information reduces administrative hassle for public entities and families, and ensures that schools and districts are able to accurately disaggregate achievement data for those students who are struggling with disadvantage.

This definition of economic disadvantage also speaks to the whole-child lens. Whether young children are living in families participating in government aid programs or living in foster care are good proxy indicators for overall risk.

NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading takes a whole child, birth through age eight approach to improving third grade reading proficiency. Pathways holds up reading proficiency as a literacy measure, and also as a proxy for overall child well-being.