Equity & Diversity

Agency Advice On New Racial Choices Lags

By Michelle R. Davis — December 11, 2002 6 min read

It used to be that students, at least in the official view of the federal government, were black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, or Alaska Native. No shades of gray, or any other color, for that matter.

But new categories and a variety of racial and ethnic choices will give students 63 ways to describe their heritage—or allow them to choose none at all. That newfound variety, which matches the options in the latest U.S. Census, is causing consternation for states and districts that need to revamp forms and computer systems to deal with the change.

The new categories and choices will affect, for example, the way data are crunched for compliance with civil rights laws and the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

States and districts are awaiting the Department of Education’s guidance, which they say is more than a year late and is needed to set up new data systems. And this task comes as states face deadlines for a raft of new testing and reporting requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which often include racial breakdowns.

The agency is working on the guidance, but has no target date for its release, a department official said last week.

“We had hoped to have our guidance out before this time, but it’s a very slow and painful process,” said Steve Winnick, a deputy general counsel for the Education Department. “We know the states are getting nervous.”

A Single Choice

In 1977, the federal government began using standard choices of race and ethnicity to collect data in a host of areas, such as housing, employment, and education. The uniformity allowed federal officials, and public users of the information, to compare and contrast data. But an individual respondent to a questionnaire or other form was limited to choosing only one category.

The country’s added diversity prompted calls for new ways to look at race. “You asked people to categorize themselves for Census purposes, and they increasingly had a problem doing that, particularly if they had mixed lineage or parentage,” said William L. Taylor, the acting chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based private watchdog group.

In particular, complaints often came from parents of multiracial children who were registering their children for school, according to documents from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the issue.

Having to choose one category required people “to deny their full heritage and to choose between their parents,” says an OMB document from August of 1995. “They feel they are being required to provide factually false information.”

In 1993, the OMB began reviewing those categories and, in 1997, revised federal data collection standards. One alteration made “Asian” a separate category from “native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.”

But the biggest change is that people may now choose to be described by more than one racial or ethnic category. The result is those 63 combinations, said Dennis Powell, the past president of the Education Information Advisory Committee, which is made up of state education agency staff members and is coordinated by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In some areas, like the 2000 Census, the federal government has begun using the new categories. But the OMB has said all federal agencies must have them in place starting Jan. 1. When that deadline was announced, states and school districts, which must use the new categories to report information to the Education Department, balked.

State and local education officials said they needed at least three school years of lead time to get their new data- collection systems in place, train employees, and print new forms. So the Education Department helped states and districts get a waiver from the OMB, allowing them to delay implementation until 2004-05.

That gave officials breathing room, but they remain worried.

In a letter to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, dated Jan. 12, 2001, the Council of Chief State School Officers’ executive director wrote that guidelines from the department were “central” to implementing new data systems. Without them, states and districts can’t “modify existing data systems to collect and maintain race ethnicity data under the new standards,” wrote G. Thomas Houlihan. “Nor can they begin to resurvey students and staff using the new standards.”

In the letter, Mr. Houlihan asked the department to seek a new waiver from the OMB delaying implementation until 2005-06. In Mr. Paige’s four-sentence reply more than a year later, April 2, 2002, the secretary said his agency was “reviewing this matter.”

Stakes Are High

Mr. Winnick, the deputy counsel, said the delay, in part, stems from the agency’s efforts to figure out how many categories are reasonable for data-collection purposes, and how to group the 63 choices into a smaller number of slots to make the system workable.

States and local agencies, Mr. Winnick said, “don’t want to make these changes once and have to make them again.”

However, the Education Department, along with several other federal agencies, appeared to have those summary categories hammered out in 2000, during the Clinton administration. An OMB bulletin, dated March 9, 2000, provides guidance on aggregating data, providing nine summary categories including the basic single categories and the most common combinations.

An OMB official said last week that the Bush Education Department had signaled its support for the OMB guidance. But Mr. Winnick said that guidance applied only to civil rights data, and that a whole host of other questions remain, including how to cross-tabulate between race and ethnicity and what to do if people fail to report their race. The OMB has also indicated it is open to other guidance options, Mr. Winnick said.

The situation affects nearly every area of education. For example, the department’s office for civil rights must collect data by race and ethnicity to make sure discrimination is not taking place. Nearly every other office, from special education to the National Center for Education Statistics, must amass similar data.

But things get tricky when it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act. Under that law, schools are required to report student performance by race and ethnicity, and those outcomes can have a major impact on schools’ reputations. The data, broken down along racial lines, is a factor in evaluating a school’s “adequate yearly progress.” That measure, in turn, determines if a school is labeled in need of improvement and thus is subject to a number of penalties.

Because the stakes are so high, states are wondering how to compare data using the differing racial classifications of the old and the new systems, said Mr. Powell, now a technology consultant with the Illinois State Board of Education.

“When we implement this new system, how are we gong to have any longitudinal data?” he said. “We’re going to be comparing apples to oranges.” The NCES, however, is how to bridge from one system to another, he said.

At this point, the situation appears to be a stand-off. Neither a set of guidelines nor another waiver appears to be forthcoming.

“Our local school districts ... are calling us and saying, ‘What should we do?’ ” said Robert M. Beecham, the current president of the chiefs’ Education Information Advisory Committee. “We’re saying wait until we hear what the guidelines are going to be.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Agency Advice On New Racial Choices Lags


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