The panel’s initial goal was to identify a universally applicable method for estimating ACS-based claiming percentages and, if sufficient data on school district costs and increased participation under a universal free meals program could be obtained, to specify when it would be cost-beneficial for a school district to adopt the AEO for some or all of its schools. With regard to ACS-based claiming percentages, we anticipated that one or more simple adjustments might be needed to account for consistent differences between ACS eligibility estimates and administrative estimates derived from the application and certification processes conducted by districts.
As noted earlier, the data the panel collected and the extensive analyses we undertook did not enable us to recommend a universally applicable method for implementing the AEO for the school meals programs. This conclusion should not be taken as a general indictment of the ACS, which was not designed specifically to support the school meals programs but as a multipurpose survey covering a variety of subject areas. Moreover, the significant variations in school district characteristics, such as enrollment size, populations served, and organization (for example, open enrollment and charter schools) make it unlikely that any general-purpose survey could serve as the basis for a universally applicable new special provision. That being said, the quality of the ACS reporting of income and program participation could undoubtedly be improved, and our findings identify promising areas for research and development to that end (see Chapter 6).
The first, and most important, impediment to a universal, one-size-fits-all approach for the AEO is that in districts with more than 50 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, ACS direct estimates,2 when compared with administrative estimates for all such school districts and for all the schools in the panel’s five case study districts, generally understate the percentage of students eligible for free meals and overstate the percentages eligible for reduced-price and full-price meals. This pattern of differences is especially pronounced in districts and schools with very high percentages (75 percent or more) of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, which are precisely those districts most likely to be interested in the AEO if accurate claiming percentages could be
2 For small districts, for which the gains in precision from model-based estimates are greatest, the systematic differences between model-based and administrative estimates are substantially larger than the systematic differences between direct and administrative estimates.