Equity & Diversity

Ed. Dept. Holds Firm on Racial-Data Rules

By Scott J. Cech — October 29, 2007 5 min read
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The Department of Education has pushed back implementation of controversial new requirements for how schools classify students by race and ethnicity, but it is holding firm in the face of objections that the new system may throw state record-keeping into confusion and artificially depress the counts of some racial groups.

Under final guidance issued by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and published in the Federal Register on Oct. 19, schools must depart from the long-standing practice of reporting student information to the department with only a single race or ethnicity option and begin collecting data on students’ racial and ethnic identities using a two-question format.

By the start of the 2010-11 school year—one year later than was announced when the guidelines were proposed last year—schools are to adopt a system in which parents or guardians are first asked whether a student is “Hispanic/Latino.” Next, they are to be asked to select one or more of the following five racial categories for the student: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African-American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or white.

Under the new system, however, the data that schools report to the Education Department through their states could be more detailed: In addition to the five racial categories and one ethnic category, schools may select an additional option—“two or more races”—to reflect a non-Hispanic student who identifies with more than one racial category under the second part of the two-part question. (“New Rules on Student Racial Data Proposed,” Aug. 30, 2006.)

Although the new system would seem to enable parents to more accurately describe their children’s race and ethnicity, any racial identifications made on behalf of a student who is identified as Hispanic will not be counted in the data submitted to the federal government. For example, a black or white student who also is identified as Hispanic will be counted only as Hispanic. The department says research shows that more people appropriately identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino when they are asked about that separately.

Schools’ Observation

“It’s basically extremely flawed— there’s basically no significant improvement” over the proposed guidance released last year, said Daniel Losen, the senior education law and policy associate at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, of the final version. “It’s almost guaranteed to be far less accurate [than the existing system] because of the two-question format.”

Two-Part Question

The Department of Education’s final guidance on the collection of student race and ethnicity data calls for schools first to ask parents whether a student is Hispanic. Then, the parents would be asked about the student’s race, and respondents could for the first time select more than one.

1. Are you Hispanic/Latino?
o Yes
o No

2. Please select one or more of the following races for yourself:

o American Indian or Alaska Native.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains a tribal affiliation or community attachment.

o Asian.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.

o Black or African-American.
A person having origin in any of the black racial groups of Africa.

o Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.

o White.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

That objection was also reflected among the more than 150 comments made during the comment period for the proposed new system put forth by the Education Department in August 2006. Other comments included suggestions that the two-question format should be optional, and contentions that more racial or ethnic categories and subcategories, such as Middle Eastern and Indian/Pakistani, should be added. Some commenters proposed that racial classifications be eliminated entirely, but the department responded in the final guidance that part of its mission is to ensure equal access to education, and that collecting racial and ethnic information is part of that mission.

But other than the one-year extension before the new system must be in place, the department made no concessions to critics in the final guidance document. In fact, the department removed an exemption, laid out in the proposed guidance, to the two-question format for schools that included “Hispanic” among the options in a single-question ethnic- and racial-identification question.

The guidance also clarifies that elementary and secondary school students’ identification should be made primarily by students’ parents or guardians, rather than by the students themselves. If the parents decline to classify a student, school officials are expected to make a racial and ethnic determination based on their own observation of the child. While the department acknowledges that officials’ identification of students is less accurate, it says that “last-resort” system is better than having no information for some students.

The revised system is intended to conform to guidelines that were established in 1997 by the White House Office of Management and Budget for data collection on race and ethnicity across the federal government. The new system is mandatory for all schools receiving federal funds, the Education Department says.

Impact on NCLB?

One area in which the new system may have an effect is school accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires the collection and reporting of disaggregated achievement data for various racial and ethnic subgroups, among other subgroups. Schools that do not meet targets for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for a single subgroup are subject to an array of sanctions.

The new guidance specifies that states will not be required to change the way students are identified at the school level for purposes of making AYP determinations under the federal law. But for all other data, such as enrollment figures, that schools report via states to the federal government, the new system must be used, the guidance says. A student who is African-American but also Hispanic could thus have to be counted as black for AYP purposes but as Hispanic for other federal data-collection purposes.

Or if states elect to change their AYP racial and ethnic classifications to be consistent with the new system, there will likely be discontinuity between pre-2010 and post-2010 AYP data.

“It may seem on one level that this is going to interrupt things; there will have to be some bridging taking place,” said Douglas Mesecar, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, referring to the process of comparing and reconciling different racial- and ethnic-classification systems. “But that’s one of the reasons we’re allowing more time. We’ve got to balance a number of competing interests.”

But UCLA’s Mr. Losen said one more year wouldn’t help much with such data-continuity issues.

“There’s no reason to think this’ll be enough time,” he said, adding that if the department couldn’t be persuaded to adjust the system, “we would be for a legislative solution.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Holds Firm on Racial-Data Rules

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