January 30, 2018

Michael Harwell, (612) 625-0196, harwe001@umn.edu
Daniel J. Quinn, (517) 203-2940, dquinn@greatlakescenter.org

Measures of economic disadvantage for students explored in new policy brief

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Jan. 30, 2018) — A new policy brief from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) examines the usefulness of common socioeconomic status (SES) measures in educational settings. Measures of SES have been linked to student achievement on high-stakes standardized tests. SES is generally associated with parental educational attainment, parental occupational status, and household family income. The measures are designed to take into account disparities and economic disadvantage facing students in schools.

Michael Harwell, University of Minnesota, authored the report for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. Funding for the brief was provided to NEPC by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, an East Lansing non-profit research organization.

This topic is of interest to researchers, policy makers, and school leaders who seek to understand gaps in academic achievement due to economic disadvantages facing students. One of the more common measures is free or reduced-price lunch (FRL) eligibility, however, researchers generally agree that FRL is a poor measure of SES.

Since measures, such as FRL, can misclassify students and fail to validly assess financial resources, researchers continue to seek better measures of student disadvantage.

Harwell’s brief explores factors that can undermine SES measures and bias research and policy conclusions. He proposes changes that could promote deeper understanding and more effective use of measures of SES in research and policymaking.

Harwell recommends:

  1. A theory-grounded model of SES should be adopted to define this construct in ways consistent with the purpose of the research or policy application.
  2. Correlations between SES measures and outcomes should be examined to assess the usefulness of these measures as control variables in statistical analyses.
  3. Researchers and policymakers wishing to employ existing SES measures should consider a composite index of SES, perhaps in conjunction with common measures, or turn to alternative measures such as either students’ perception of their SES or poverty estimates at the district level. Those interested in developing new measures should use a theory-grounded SES model as a guide to help ensure new SES measures do in fact measure what they are intended to (i.e., show evidence of construct validity).
  4. The development of new SES measures guided by a theory-grounded model of SES requires assembling a multidisciplinary team with expertise in a substantive area of education (e.g., mathematics education) as well as expertise in psychometrics, statistics, and the SES literature.
  5. Eligibility for a free- or reduced-price lunch should not be used as a student-level SES measure, but aggregating this variable to reflect the percentage of students receiving subsidized meals produces a crude but useful index to compare the economic need of a school or district with other schools or districts.

Find the brief on the Great Lakes Center website:

You can also find the brief on the NEPC page:

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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develop research-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.

Visit the Great Lakes Center website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/