How Not to Report on Test Scores and Free Lunches


Bob Somerby is complaining today about numerical illiteracy among our nation’s elite reporting class. Item 1: the New York Times describes a 10-point improvement among fourth graders on the NAEP test as “small.” In fact, it’s roughly a full grade level. If you think that improving by a full grade level in a single decade is small, you’re either crazy or innumerate.

Item 2: M. Night Shyamalan talks about the fact that American test scores are pretty high in “districts in which the poverty rate was less than 10 percent.” However, the only income data we have for most test takers is related to the National School Lunch Program. Shyamalan is using eligibility for free or reduced meals as a marker of poverty. But it’s not. And since here at MoJo we’re dedicated to lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, here are the exact eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price lunches in 2013, courtesy of the Agriculture Department:

Obviously, folks eligible for reduced-price meals aren’t exactly swimming in cash. Still, a family of three making $36,000 isn’t anyone’s idea of poverty, and it’s misleading to say so. Eligibility for free meals would be a fairly decent proxy for poverty—they account for about a third of all NSLP meals—but unfortunately that data isn’t collected separately. You either qualify for NSLP or you don’t, and something like two-thirds of all schoolchildren qualify. It’s a pretty broad brush, and there are damn few school districts in which fewer than 10 percent of kids qualify.

FWIW, this is why I’ve never bothered breaking down test scores by income. The only data available is eligibility for NSLP, and between the loose requirements and the virtual nonexistence of verification1, it simply doesn’t mean very much. It can give you a very broad feel for how rich or poor a particular school or district is, but that’s it.

1Which I’m all in favor of, by the way. This is a program that probably doesn’t benefit from tighter scrutiny. Nonetheless, it makes it nearly useless as a proxy for poverty among test takers.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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