Measuring School Poverty Matters, but How Should We Measure It?
Comparing Results of Survey Analyses Conducted Using Various Measures of School Poverty
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Education researchers and policymakers have long used free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) eligibility as a proxy for student, school, and district poverty. However, changes to eligibility requirements and increasing evidence that FRPL eligibility is not an accurate prediction of family income have led to growing concerns about whether FRPL-based measures can still be used reliably. In this paper, we seek to understand the relationship between school-level FRPL rates and alternative measures of school and community poverty and how these measures compare to one another as explanatory variables and covariates in analyses. As an illustrative example, we use data from a national survey of school principals to assess whether the selection of a specific school poverty measure over another has substantive implications on correlational analyses. We find that proxying school poverty using slightly different measures generally leads to finding relationships between predictor and outcome variables in the same direction with coefficients of approximately the same magnitude, but with differing levels of precision. Thus, we conclude that analyses that continue to rely solely on FRPL eligibility rates as a proxy for school poverty, despite known weaknesses, will generally uncover the same relationships as those that rely on alternative measures of school poverty.
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