A More Equitable Approach to Student Socioeconomic Status Measurement

By Ryan Whorton

Efforts to promote equity and ensure opportunity for all learners in the United States requires a deeper understanding of how the supports provided to students outside of school influence learning and how schools can compensate for lack of such supports among some students. The relationship between students’ academic success and the resources available to them in their homes and communities has long been a topic of interest to education policymakers and researchers.

Researchers often use socioeconomic status (SES) to examine influences on student learning. Measures of SES typically include information about student and family background. Although SES can be measured in a variety of ways, researchers have largely settled on three components as the basis for student SES measurement: parental education, parental occupation, and family income. This student SES information is often collected as part of the survey questionnaires that are paired with large-scale assessments (LSAs), providing context for student achievement.

Despite the long-standing acceptance of these traditional survey questions, they reflect outdated assumptions about students’ caregivers and living arrangements. Although the parent survey questions provide useful and valid SES information about students living together with both their biological mother and father, they are not well-suited for students with other kinds of families. It is relatively common for grandparents, stepparents, aunts, uncles, and other adults to provide the financial and emotional support traditionally assumed to come solely from one mother and one father. Some students live in more than one household and have four or more different adults in their lives that act as their caregivers. To properly measure student SES in the ever-changing social landscape, alternative measures are needed to ensure an equitable and inclusive survey questionnaire experience for all students.

In working toward that goal, we are excited to share Beyond Nuclear Families: Development of Inclusive Student Socioeconomic Status Survey Questions. In this report, we describe a two-part study in which we developed and tested a new set of survey questions for measuring household composition, caregiver education, and caregiver employment while accounting for the diversity of students’ housing arrangements and family structures. This study was conducted in support of a U.S.-based assessment measuring student achievement.

Study One:

We interviewed students in grades 4, 8, and 12 with nontraditional families to better understand how these students think about their families and caregivers. The sample included students from single-parent households, households with adults other than parents, extended family households, and multiple household arrangements. Students in all three grades demonstrated that they understood the concept of caregivers and could give examples of typical caregiver behavior such as providing emotional support or clothing and shelter. The students also demonstrated that they understood whether they lived in one or more places.

Study Two:

We used what we learned from study one to draft survey questions that we then tested in study two. This set of questions allowed students to provide information about their caregivers and other household members who contribute and/or draw socioeconomic resources from the household. Here, the caregivers would be identified by, not assumed for, the student. This approach allowed for the caregiver education and employment items to be customized and relevant for each students’ unique circumstances. This approach also allows students to report living in more than one household and specify the members of each. In study two, we administered the draft survey questions to a different sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 with nontraditional families. We also asked the students probing questions about the survey questions, including questions about defining key words or phrases used in the survey questions. Student responses to these probing questions helped us to make the survey questions easier to answer.

Our Results:

We found that students were generally able to complete the set of survey questions, regardless of their household type. Students living with a broad range of family members and other adults understood the term caregiver to refer to a person who provides resources and support. For this reason, we recommend that the term “caregiver” be used in place of “mother” and “father” in survey questions to better reflect the households and families of all students. Additionally, we observed that students found it easier to answer survey questions about caregiver education and employment when the questions included the titles of their caregivers (e.g., your mother, your brother). To identify students’ caregivers so that their titles can be included in caregiver education and employment survey questions, we recommend that survey questionnaires include household composition questions and functionality allowing students to identify some family members as their caregivers. Household composition items should include a broad range of potential household members, including extended family (e.g., grandparents, aunts, uncles), stepparents, and other adults. Taking these steps will better ensure all students see their personal circumstances presented as equal to that of students living with one mother and one father.

This report is meant to start a conversation with the survey questionnaire community on the familial assumptions made about students in traditional SES survey questions that we ask all students to answer. It is a first step toward a more comprehensive and diversity-minded standard for measurement of student SES-using survey questionnaires. More research is needed to optimize this new approach, including refinement of the wording of the questions, potential use of supporting pictures and imagery, and structure of the questionnaire task. Researchers and others who seek information about students’ backgrounds are encouraged to apply the recommendations and insights described in this report to new and existing survey questions about homes and families.

Ryan Whorton is a product management lead at ETS.