When it comes to public schools, we generally measure student poverty by looking at the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. According to a recent piece in The New York Times, however, looking at students eligible for subsidized meals as a homogeneous group severely underestimates the achievement and opportunity gaps.
Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, looked at data from her state and found that, although approximately half of eighth-graders are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, only 14 percent had been eligible every year since kindergarten.
“These children are the poorest of the poor—the persistently disadvantaged. The math scores of these poorest children are far lower than predicted by the standard measure of economic disadvantage. The achievement gap between persistently disadvantaged children and those who were never disadvantaged is about a third larger than the gap that is typically measured.”
She hypothesizes that long-term eligibility for subsidized meals is a proxy for the severe disadvantage these children face.
“Many federal, state, and local programs distribute money based on the share of a district’s students who are eligible for subsidized meals. But schools that have identical shares of students eligible for subsidized meals may differ vastly in the share of students who are deeply poor.”