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How NSLP Eligibility Has Changed over the Last Decade

Young student walking to school wearing a backpack with a brown paper lunch bag in his hand

According to a new report by the Southern Education Foundation, more than half (51%) of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, based on their eligibility for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

The data was collected from NCES’s Common Core of Data and aligns with a trend NAEP has witnessed over the last decade. Based on data collected during NAEP’s fourth-grade reading assessment, the national percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch increased from 40% to 50% between 2003 and 2013*. As of 2013, more than half of the 4th-grade students in 29 states and jurisdictions were eligible for NSLP—compared to 13 states and jurisdictions a decade ago.

This animated map shows how the eligibility rate shifted in individual states. The states that saw the most dramatic increases were Oregon, Nevada, and West Virginia. Those with the smallest increases included North Dakota, New York, and Kentucky.

Map of the United States showing that NSLP eligibility has increased in every state since 2003

There is a long history of using socioeconomic status (SES) to predict present and future academic achievement and other life outcomes. Together with parental education, NAEP collects NSLP eligibility data as an indicator of students’ socioeconomic status. The program uses this data to report performance and achievement gaps among students from higher- and lower-income families. However, due to recent changes to NSLP eligibility rules (such as the Community Eligibility Provision) some qualifying schools may classify all of their students as NSLP-eligible. This makes it difficult for NAEP to accurately categorize students as low-income and measure and report their achievement.

NAEP is exploring other methods for measuring and reporting results in relation to SES. Read our recent white paper to learn more: to open pdf.

*Recent changes to the eligibility rules for NSLP under the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) enable local education agencies (LEAs) to count a school or group of schools as NSLP-eligible if a minimum of 40% of students attending meet NSLP requirements. This new change in counting students who qualify for NSLP may explain slight differences between NAEP data and the Common Core of Data on the percentage of students participating in NSLP. CEP was available to a limited group of LEAs beginning in 2011 and opened nationwide to LEAs and schools in July 2014.


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