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National Center for Education Statistics

Understanding School Lunch Eligibility in the Common Core of Data

Every year in the Common Core of Data (CCD), NCES releases data on the number of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free meals to children during the school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946, and currently serves nearly 30 million children.

This post highlights substantial changes to the NSLP and related changes in CCD reporting and provides guidance on how to use the NSLP data.

Free or Reduced-Price Lunch vs. Direct Certification

Historically, student eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) was determined through individual students submitting school meals application forms within school districts. In 1986, the USDA introduced a direct certification option to reduce participation barriers in the school meal program. Under direct certification, any child belonging to a household that participates in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), or (in some states) Medicaid—as well as children who are migrant, homeless, in foster care, or in Head Start—are categorically eligible to receive free meals at school.

The NSLP data included in CCD releases include school-level FRPL and direct certification eligibility counts for all public schools with students enrolled. These point-in-time counts are taken on or around October 1 of each school year and reported by the states based on the following guidance: 

  • FRPL-Eligible Students
    • Free lunch students: those eligible to participate in the Free Lunch Program (i.e., those with family incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level or who are directly certified)
    • Reduced-price lunch students: those eligible to participate in the Reduced-Price Lunch Program (i.e., those with family incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level)
    • Free and reduced-price lunch student: the total of free lunch students and reduced-price lunch students
  • Direct Certification
    • The number of students reported as categorically eligible to receive free meals to the USDA for the FNS 742. Students are categorically eligible to receive free meals if they belong to a household receiving the selected federal benefits noted above or are migrant, homeless, in foster care, or in Head Start.

The count of students eligible for free lunch includes students directly certified plus any students who qualified for free lunch by completing a school meals application. As such, the number of students reported as directly certified should always be less than or equal to the number of free lunch students.

Note that changes in SNAP (both legislated eligibility requirements and temporary changes such as national disasters) can have implications for reported NSLP eligibility as well.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) established national nutrition standards for food served and sold in schools and made changes to the NSLP to increase food access. These changes also impacted the NSLP data published through CCD:

  • While direct certification had been an option since 1986, HHFKA mandated that states directly certify NSLP eligibility for at least 95 percent of SNAP participants. With the mandated use of direct certification, several states stopped reporting FRPL eligibility entirely. 
  • HHFKA introduced the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to expand access to free meals to all students in low-income areas. Schools qualifying under CEP no longer count students who qualify for reduced-price lunch since all students are provided a free lunch. CEP schools may report all students as eligible for free lunch regardless of economic status, since all students are provided a free lunch.

Guidance for Data Users

The NSLP eligibility data published through CCD are often used by researchers as a proxy measure for the number of students living in poverty. However, there are limitations to the usefulness of these data that researchers should consider when using NSLP data.

The NSLP data published through CCD has changed over time. CCD published just FRPL counts through SY 2015–16. Starting in SY 2016–17, states can report FRPL and/or direct certification eligibility counts for each school, and CCD publishes both FRPL and direct certification, as reported by the states.[1]

When creating state and national estimates (including tables in the Digest of Education Statistics), NCES uses FRPL counts when they are available. If FRPL data are not available, direct certification data is used as a proxy. For this type of analysis, NCES includes all schools for which both student enrollment data and FRPL or direct certification were reported. States that only reported direct certification are footnoted. NCES recommends that data users be mindful of the reporting differences when analyzing or drawing conclusions with these data.

The NSLP data meet a variety of critical analysis needs to help policy makers, researchers, and the public target resources and answer policy questions. CCD is the only source of nationwide school-level NSLP data. Explore NSLP data as well as all of the other CCD data elements available either by using the CCD data query tool or by downloading data files directly.

 

By Beth Sinclair, AEM, and Chen-Su Chen, NCES

 


[1] In SY 2018–19, states reported FRPL counts for 95 percent of schools. Five states/jurisdictions reported solely the number of direct certification students (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and American Samoa). The remaining states/jurisdictions were split: about half reported solely the number of FRPL students for each school and the other half reported both FRPL and direct certification for each school (or FRPL for some schools and direct certification for others).

Why Do Parents Choose Schools for Their Children?

Have you ever wondered why parents choose a specific school for their child? New data from the Parent and Family Involvement (PFI) Survey of the National Household Education Surveys (NHES) program allow us to identify the factors that parents of K–12 students rate as “very important” when choosing a school. In the 2018–19 school year, 36 percent of students had parents who indicated that they had considered multiple schools for their child. Among these students, 79 percent had parents who indicated that the quality of teachers, principals, or other school staff was “very important” (figure 1). Other factors that a majority of students’ parents indicated as being very important include safety (including student discipline) (71 percent) and curriculum focus or unique academic programs (e.g., language immersion, STEM focus) (59 percent).


Figure 1. Among K–12 students whose parents considered multiple schools, percentage whose parents indicated that selected factors were “very important” when choosing child’s school, by school type: 2018–19

SOURCE: Hanson, R., and Pugliese, C. (2020). Parent and Family Involvement in Education: 2019 (NCES 2020-076). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


Although parents of students attending different types of schools (i.e., public assigned schools, public chosen schools, private religious schools, or private nonreligious schools) rated most factors for choosing a school similarly, some differences were observed. For example, higher percentages of students in private nonreligious schools than of students in all other kinds of schools had parents who indicated that the following factors were very important when choosing a school:

  • Quality of teachers, principals, or other school staff (92 percent) (figure 1)
  • Curriculum focus or unique academic programs (74 percent) (figure 1)
  • Number of students in class (58 percent) (figure 2)

In addition, a higher percentage of students in private nonreligious schools (42 percent) than of students in public schools (30 percent for public assigned schools and 31 percent for public chosen schools) had parents who indicated that student body characteristics were very important when choosing a school (figure 2). Conversely, a lower percentage of students in private nonreligious schools (14 percent) than of students in any other school type (ranging from 22 to 29 percent) had parents who rated cost as very important.


Figure 2. Among K–12 students whose parents considered multiple schools, percentage whose parents indicated that selected factors were “very important” when choosing child’s school, by school type: 2018–19

SOURCE: Hanson, R., and Pugliese, C. (2020). Parent and Family Involvement in Education: 2019 (NCES 2020-076). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


Thirty percent of students in public assigned schools had parents who reported that they had considered other schools for their child. What did parents of students in public assigned schools value more than other parents (figure 3)?

  • Extracurricular options (including before- and after-school programs): 31 percent of parents of students in public assigned schools indicated that this factor was very important, compared with 25 percent in public chosen schools and 24 percent in private religious schools.
  • Special facilities (e.g., gymnasium, planetarium, library): 26 percent of parents of students in public assigned schools indicated that this factor was very important, compared with 20 percent in public chosen schools and 15 percent in private religious schools.
  • Quality or availability of special education (including services for students with disabilities): 25 percent of parents of students in public assigned schools indicated that this factor was very important, compared with 13 percent in private religious schools and 17 percent in private nonreligious schools.

Figure 3. Among K–12 students whose parents considered multiple schools, percentage whose parents indicated that selected factors were “very important” when choosing child’s school, by school type: 2018–19

SOURCE: Hanson, R., and Pugliese, C. (2020). Parent and Family Involvement in Education: 2019 (NCES 2020-076). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


On the other hand, a lower percentage of students in public assigned schools had parents who indicated that the quality of teachers, principals, or other school staff was very important (77 percent) than did students in any other type of school (82 percent of students in public chosen schools, 84 percent of students in private religious schools, and 92 percent of students in private nonreligious schools) (figure 1).

Only 38 percent of students in private religious schools had parents who indicated that the religious orientation of the school was very important when choosing a school (figure 4). Likewise, only a quarter of students overall had parents who indicated that convenience of location was very important when choosing a school.


Figure 4. Among K–12 students whose parents considered multiple schools, percentage whose parents indicated that selected factors were “very important” when choosing child’s school, by school type: 2018–19

SOURCE: Hanson, R., and Pugliese, C. (2020). Parent and Family Involvement in Education: 2019 (NCES 2020-076). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


More details about the characteristics and factors that play a role in school choice, as well as additional statistics on family involvement in schools, are available in the recent NCES release Parent and Family Involvement in Education: 2019.

 

By Sarah Grady, NCES

New Report on Crime and Safety in Schools and on College Campuses

Crime in our nation’s schools and college campuses has generally declined over the past two decades, according to Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2019, a recently released NCES report. This report highlights new analyses of mental health services provided by public schools and the prevalence of school and school neighborhood problems. The report also covers topics such as victimization, school conditions, safety and security measures at school, and criminal incidents at postsecondary institutions.

In 2018, students ages 12–18 experienced 836,100 total victimizations (i.e., thefts and nonfatal violent victimizations) at school and 410,200 total victimizations away from school. These figures represent a rate of 33 victimizations per 1,000 students at school and 16 victimizations per 1,000 students away from school. From 1992 to 2018, the total victimization rate and the rates of specific crimes—thefts and violent victimizations—declined for students ages 12–18, both at school and away from school.

This edition of Indicators of School Crime and Safety examines new data on school shootings. While such events represent a small subset of the violent incidents that occur at schools, they are of high concern to those interested in the safety of our nation’s students. In school year 2018–19, there were 66 reported school shootings with casualties at public and private elementary and secondary schools (29 school shootings with deaths and 37 school shootings with injuries only). Between 2000–01 and 2018–19, the number of school shootings with casualties per year ranged from 11 to 66.

Student bullying was the most commonly reported discipline problem among public schools over the past two decades. In school year 2017–18, about 14 percent of public schools reported that bullying occurred among students at least once a week, representing a decrease from the 29 percent of schools that reported student bullying in 1999–2000. In 2017–18, about 15 percent of public schools reported that cyberbullying had occurred among students at least once a week either at school or away from school.

This edition of the report also contains an analysis of new survey items that asked administrators at schools serving fifth-graders about issues in neighborhoods around their schools. In spring 2016, “crime in the neighborhood” and “selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public” were the two most commonly reported school neighborhood problems. Thirty-four percent of fifth-graders attended schools where crime in the neighborhood was a problem, and 31 percent attended schools where selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public was a problem. For the five school neighborhood problems examined in the report, fifth-graders attending schools where these were a big problem or somewhat of a problem consistently had lower scores in reading, mathematics, and science than did those attending schools where these were not a problem.



In addition to reporting data on student victimizations and school safety conditions, Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2019 also includes information on the programs and practices that schools had in place to promote a safe school. The new report includes a special analysis of mental health services provided by public schools. During the 2017–18 school year, 51 percent of public schools reported providing diagnostic mental health assessments to evaluate students for mental health disorders. Thirty-eight percent of public schools reported providing treatment to students for mental health disorders. When asked about whether certain factors limited their efforts to provide mental health services in a major way, 52 percent of public schools reported that inadequate funding was a major limitation, and 41 percent reported that inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals was a major limitation.



The report also looked at safety and security practices. In school year 2017–18, about 92 percent of public schools had a written plan in place for procedures to be performed in the event of an active shooter. Forty-six percent had a plan for procedures in the event of a pandemic disease. Between 2005–06 and 2017–18, the percentage of public schools that reported having one or more security staff present at school at least once a week increased from 42 to 61 percent.

Shedding light on postsecondary campus safety and security, the report shows that the number of reported forcible sex offenses on college campuses increased greatly while the overall number of reported criminal incidents at postsecondary institutions fell. Between 2001 and 2017, the number of reported forcible sex offenses on college campus increased 372 percent (from 2,200 to 10,400 offenses) while the overall number of criminal incidents reported on postsecondary campuses decreased by 31 percent (from 41,600 to 28,900 incidents). However, in the most recent data (between 2016 and 2017), the overall number of criminal incidents reported on postsecondary campuses increased by 2 percent. In 2017, a total of 958 hate crimes were reported on college campuses, of which the most common types were destruction, damage, and vandalism (437 incidents) and intimidation (385 incidents). Race, religion, and sexual orientation were the categories of motivating bias most frequently associated with these hate crimes.

To view the full Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2019 report, please visit https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2020063.

 

By Ke Wang, AIR

New Education Data from the Household Pulse Survey

Recognizing the extraordinary information needs of policymakers during the coronavirus pandemic, NCES joined a partnership with the Census Bureau and four other federal statistical agencies to quickly develop a survey to gather key indicators of our nation’s response to the global pandemic. Thus, the experimental 2020 Household Pulse Survey began development on March 23, 2020, and data collection began on April 23, 2020. This new survey provides weekly national and state estimates, which are released to the public in tabular formats one week after the end of data collection.

The Household Pulse Survey gathers information from adults about employment status, spending patterns, food security, housing, physical and mental health, access to health care, and educational disruption. The education component includes questions about the following:

  • The weekly time spent on educational activities by students in public and private elementary and secondary schools
  • The availability of computer equipment and the Internet for instructional purposes
  • The extent to which computer equipment and the Internet for students were provided or subsidized

Since this survey is designed to represent adults 18 years old and over, the responses to the education questions concern students within the households of adults 18 years old and over, not the percentage of students themselves.

In the Household Pulse Survey during the weeks of April 23 through May 5, adults reported that their average weekly time spent on teaching activities with elementary and secondary students in their household was 13.1 hours. These results differed by educational attainment: adults who had not completed high school reported a weekly average of 9.9 hours in teaching activities with children, whereas adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree reported 13.9 hours (figure 1). In terms of the average weekly time spent on live virtual contact between students in their household and their teachers, adults reported a lower average of 4.1 hours.



Adults’ reports about the school instruction model need to be interpreted carefully because respondents could choose multiple types of approaches. A higher percentage of adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree (84 percent) reported that classes for elementary and secondary students in their household had moved to a format using online resources than did adults who had completed some college or an associate’s degree (74 percent), adults who had completed only high school (64 percent), or adults who had not completed high school (57 percent).

Higher percentages of adults with higher levels of education than of adults with lower levels of education reported that computers and the Internet were always available for educational purposes for elementary and secondary students in their households (figure 2).



The percentage of adults who reported that the school district provided a computer or digital device for children in their households to use at home for educational purposes was higher for adults who had not completed high school (44 percent) than for adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree (33 percent). Also, a higher percentage of adults who had not completed high school than of adults with higher levels of educational attainment reported financial assistance for student Internet access.

It is important to note that the speed of the survey development and the pace of the data collection efforts have led to policies and procedures for the experimental Household Pulse Survey that are not always consistent with traditional federal survey operations. Data should be interpreted with proper caution.  

More information on the Household Pulse Survey, detailed statistical tables, and microdata sets are available at https://www.census.gov/householdpulsedata. The Household Pulse Survey site includes breakouts of the data by other characteristics, such as race/ethnicity. In addition to participating in the development of this new survey, NCES has also generated new analyses based on existing data that respond to new needs for policy information, such as the availability of the Internet for student learning.

 

By Xiaolei Wang, AIR

NHES Data Files Provide Researchers Supplemental Information on Survey Respondents’ Communities

Increasingly, researchers are merging survey data with data from external sources, such as administrative data or different surveys, to enhance analyses. Combining data across sources increases the usefulness of the data while minimizing the burden on survey respondents.

In September, the National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES) released restricted-use supplemental geocode data files that use sample respondents’ addresses to integrate the 2016 NHES Parent and Family Involvement in Education (PFI), Early Childhood Program Participation (ECPP), and Adult Training and Education (ATES) survey data with data from other collections. The supplemental geocode files include additional geographic identifiers, characteristics of respondents’ neighborhoods and local labor markets, radius-based measures of household proximity to job search assistance and educational opportunities, and, for surveys focused on children, school district identifiers based on home addresses and school district characteristics.

The new data can complement researchers’ analyses of data from all three surveys. Researchers can expand their analyses of school choice and access to K–12 schooling options using the PFI survey data. Those interested in analyses of decisions about children’s early education can use the ECPP survey data to look at the availability of Head Start programs, preschools in private schools near children’s homes, and the prevalence of prekindergarten programs in local school districts. Researchers interested in nondegree credential attainment and training for work can use data from the ATES to find information on local labor markets and the number of American Job Centers near respondents’ homes.

The NHES:2016 restricted-use supplemental geocode files are available to restricted-use license holders to be used in conjunction with the NHES:2016 survey data files. To access the full set of NHES:2016 geocode supplemental restricted-use data files, apply for a restricted-use license. You can also browse the list of variables in the supplemental geocode files.

 

By Emily Isenberg and Sarah Grady, NCES