WAKEFIELD — A new metric for collecting education data for kindergarten through grade 12 has been established as a result of redefining low income, said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen K. Zrike at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

As a result, Chapter 70 funding will change, schools Business Manager Michael Pfifferling said.

For many years, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has collected data on the number of low income students attending each public elementary and secondary school, and research clearly shows that students from lower income households typically face more learning challenges than students from more affluent homes. Collecting data on students’ family income helps school departments to direct more resources to their schools and helps monitor how well those schools are doing with those students.

The most commonly used metric for measuring income status has been eligibility for free or reduced lunch meals under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutrition program. Families submit application forms documenting their household income and, if the income falls below certain levels set by the United States Department of Agriculture, students in that family can then receive free or reduced price school breakfasts and lunches. Under longstanding U.S. Department of Education guidance, these students are then recorded as low income for purposes of educational statistics.

Two years ago, the USDA introduced the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) as an option for schools and districts with high concentrations of low income students. Under CEP, all students in the participating schools are entitled to receive free meals under the school nutrition program. This eliminates the cost and administrative burden of collecting and processing family applications, as well as costs associated with collecting lunch fees. More important, CEP increases student participation in school nutrition programs and it is agreed that students learn better when they are not hungry. For all these reasons, DESE is encouraging eligible schools and districts to participate in CEP.

But without the availability of free and reduced price data in many of the largest districts, there was a need to develop a new income status metric that could be used consistently across the state. This new metric, called “economically disadvantaged” to differentiate it from the old “low income” measure, will be used to report from all schools and districts, not just those participating in CEP. The new measure will be based on a student’s participation in one or more state administered programs: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC), the Department of Children and Families (DCF) foster care program and MassHealth (Medicaid).

Individual school districts have used the so-called “direct certification” process to access enrollment data from these programs for many years, in order to validate their free and reduced price school lunch participation. DESE will now use the same direct certification process on a statewide basis. Strict data security protocols are in place at the executive office of Health and Human Services to ensure that all confidential data is protected in accordance with federal and state data privacy statutes and MassIT security policies.

Because of the change in the methodology, the number of economically disadvantaged students reported as enrolled on Oct. 1, 2014 in most schools will be lower than the number of low income students reported in 2013-2014 and prior years. This has nothing to do with any real changes in family income, said Pfifferling. It is simply a shift from one valid measure to another valid measure.

“Free and reduced lunch applications will remain the same in Wakefield,” he said.

According to Rob Curtin, director of Education Data Services in Massachusetts, the shift to a new metric will not be easy.

“Nevertheless, it is a necessary change so that our less affluent towns and cities can take advantage of the many benefits of the USDA’s CEP,” he said.

Bullet points

• The foundation budget, used to calculate both Chapter 70 school aid and charter school tuition rates, currently relies on free and reduced price data. Fiscal Year 2016 will be a transition year, using Fiscal Year 2015 free and reduced price data from non-CEP districts and a combination of Fiscal Year 2014 free and reduced price data plus direct certification for new students in CEP districts. In Fiscal Year 2017 and beyond, it has been recommended that low income increments in the formula be increased sufficiently to offset the lower number of students in the economically disadvantaged category.

• For grant programs that require poverty data for eligibility or entitlement calculations, the appropriate DESE program office will provide guidance directly to districts and schools.

• School building authority reimbursement rates are based in part on low income percentages.

• Schools and districts that use free and reduced eligibility for sliding scale fees or other local purposes may continue to do so.