Equity & Diversity

Education Dept. Proposes New Rules for Student Race and Ethnicity Data

By Michelle R. Davis — August 08, 2006 5 min read
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For the first time, states and schools reporting data on student race and ethnicity to the U.S. Department of Education would be able to list students as being multiracial, under proposed federal guidelines unveiled this week.

Parents would also be able to select more than one racial category for their children—something already permitted by some states and districts.

The changes could have implications for civil rights enforcement, educational research, and the distribution of federal education aid, although they would likely have a relatively minor impact on the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that student achievement data be broken out by race.

Published in the Federal Register on Aug. 7, the proposed guidance provides the first glimpse of long-awaited changes in federal rules for collecting and reporting racial and ethnic data on students. The proposed changes stem from 1997 standards adopted by the White House Office of Management and Budget for the data collection on race across the federal government. For example, the OMB standards made “Asian” a separate racial category from “native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.”

The public encountered the OMB standards with the 2000 U.S. Census, which was the first to allow respondents to select more than one race for themselves.

The Education Department proposal would require schools to use a two-question format to collect student data on race and ethnicity. The first question would ask whether or not the student is Hispanic or Latino. The federal government says that means a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central America, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.

School officials would then ask a parent or student to select one or more races from the revised 1997 list of five categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African American, native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and white. If a parent or student refuses to identify a race for the student, the guidance says “observer identification” may be used, meaning a school official would make the determination.

Under those five categories, states and districts may also allow students to select their subcategory—for example, Japanese, Chinese, or Korean under the Asian category. Some states and districts are already doing that.

“The most frequent cases of an individual not reporting a race occur for individuals who identify themselves as Hispanic/Latino,” the department’s guidance says. “Therefore, educational institutions and other recipients should include instructions that encourage students and staff to answer both questions.”

The guidance says states and school districts already collecting information this way should begin submitting it to the Education Department for the 2006-07 school year. By fall 2009, all states and districts would have to follow the procedures.

In the past, even if districts allowed students to select more than one racial category to describe themselves, states were only permitted to submit data to the Education Department grouping students into one race category or another. Under the proposed guidance, states can now submit data for multiracial students under the category “two or more races.”

Minor Impact Expected on NCLB

The new data collection on race and ethnicity will affect the way data are crunched on such things as Title I spending and civil rights compliance.

The guidance will not have an immediate impact on whether schools and districts are making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Chad Colby a spokesman for the Education Department. The law requires that students in “major” racial and ethnic subgroups reach annual educational targets for their schools. Under the law, states decide which racial and ethnic categories to consider and will continue to do so, Mr. Colby said.

However, the department points out that the availability of the “two or more races” choice will affect comparisons of past years’ student achievement data under the law.

“The states vary substantially in the number and distribution of multiple-race individuals and are in the best position to decide how these requirements should be applied to their populations,” the guidance states. “States implementing this new guidance will not necessarily be changing the race and ethnicity categories used for AYP purposes.”

Those in charge of data collection for states and school districts have been eagerly awaiting the new guidelines. Many have held off on changing or updating their systems in anticipation of the release, said Deborah Newby, the director for data quality at the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

“Most folks would say this is overdue,” said Ms. Newby. “Part of [data collectors’] anxiousness is because … you can’t just change overnight.”

Ms. Newby said she was pleased with the timeline proposed by the Education Department. The department says it held off publishing its proposed guidance until the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published its own guidelines last November on race and ethnicity data collection. The EEOC’s race guidelines apply to data collection on school employees.

The goal was to “minimize the burden of implementation” on local and state education agencies, so they could “use the same reporting requirements for students and staff,” the Education Department says in its guidance.

Across the federal government, data collection on race and ethnicity has been done on a uniform basis since the 1970s to allow information on such things as income, unemployment, and education to be compared. But individuals could only choose one category to define themselves: American Indian or Alaska native; Asian (which included native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders); Hispanic; Black or African-American; or White.

The Education Department points out that in the 2000 Census, which for the first time allowed respondents to select more than one race, 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, or 6.8 million people, identified themselves as belonging to two or more racial groups. Of those under age 18, 4 percent, or 2.8 million, were categorized as belonging to two or more races.

“Parents were saying that they and their children were multiracial and were being forced artificially to select one race that didn’t represent who they were,” said Steven Y. Winnick, a senior counsel at Holland and Knight, and a former deputy general counsel for the Education Department who worked on this issue. “This honors that concern.”

The Education Department will accept written comments on the proposed guidance until Sept. 21.

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