By Lauren Musu-Gillette
There is an abundance of data and research that shows a relationship between a student’s socioeconomic status (SES) and their academic outcomes. For example, students from low-SES families are far more likely to drop out and far less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than their peers from middle- and high-SES families.
As we seek to better interpret and understand these and other findings related to student progress, it important for NCES to try to collect accurate and complete measures of student SES.
Percentage distribution of highest level of educational attainment of spring 2002 high school sophomores in 2012, by socioeconomic status (SES)
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002), Base Year and Third Follow-up. See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 104.91.
Measures of SES usually combine several different statistics, most commonly family income/wealth, parent educational attainment, and parent occupation. In some surveys, NCES is able to collect data directly from parents in order to measure all these component of SES. However, in many assessments and some surveys, NCES is unable to collect this information directly from parents making it difficult to create a consistent measure of SES across the Center.
NCES staff recognizes both the importance of collecting valid and reliable SES data, and the challenges associated with doing so. For example, between 2010 and 2012, NCES convened a panel of experts in the fields of economics, education, statistics, human development, and sociology who provided information on SES, including theoretical foundations, common components, data collection and measurement approaches, and possible implications of a new measure of SES for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). There are several challenges for NAEP when considering the inclusion of survey items that can be used to measure student SES. Since NAEP does not include a parent survey, student or school-level data is currently the only potential source for data. However, data on SES can be difficult to collect directly from students as many are unable to accurately respond to questions about their family income or the highest level of their parent or parents’ education.
In terms of school-level data, student eligibility for free and reduced price meals has historically been an important indicator of household income. However, recent changes in the way schools are required to record eligibility for free and reduced price meals has required researchers to reconsider the use of this data point as a measure of family income, or as a proxy, more generally, for SES. A recent NAEP blog on this topic provides additional information on NAEP-specific considerations, but these changes impact data collection efforts across the agency. Additionally, the free and reduced price meals data only reflect income, which is only part of a complete SES measure, and does not differentiate between middle and high SES students.
Given these changes, NCES is working to identify other variables that could serve as more reliable and valid measures of student SES. For example, several NCES staff members are involved with the Alternative SES Measure Working Group as part of the National Forum on Education Statistics. This group recently released the Forum Guide to Alternative Measures of Socioeconomic Status in Education Data Systems. This publication presents advantages and disadvantages for eight alternative measures of SES. These resources are intended to serve as reference tools for education agencies engaged in identifying, evaluating, or implementing alternative SES measures. They are not data collection instruments and do not represent federal reporting requirements.
Collecting data on and examining differences in educational outcomes by student SES is important to both researchers and educators. As data systems evolve and measures of SES change over time, NCES is committed to researching and collecting the best data possible with the resources available.
 For most NCES surveys, parent educational attainment and parent occupation is based on the highest level achieved by either parent and/or guardian in the household.