Equity & Diversity

Schools Must Add New Ways To Count Races

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 22, 2000 6 min read

The federal government’s decision this month to require schools to collect and report more elaborate data on the racial and ethnic backgrounds of their students raises more questions than it answers for some educators.

“There are innumerable challenges,” said Henry Der, a deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education who serves on an advisory committee on the U.S. Census for the U.S. Department of Commerce. “It’s not clear whether local school districts will have the capacity to do it.”

Currently, schools must classify students according to five categories: American Indian or Alaskan native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Hispanic; black, not of Hispanic origin; or white, not of Hispanic origin. The data are used, among other purposes, by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights to monitor possible instances of discrimination, such as whether an inordinate number of minority students are being assigned to special education classes.

Schools use these same categories to classify their faculty and staff members for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor hiring practices.

For More Information

Read the March 9 OMB memo: “Guidance on Aggregation and Allocation of Data on Race for Use in Civil Rights Monitoring and Enforcement.”

But in a March 9 memo, the White House Office of Management and Budget stated that schools must increase the number of racial and ethnic categories to between 10 and 12 for purposes of civil rights monitoring.

These will include five single-race categories plus four multiracial ones—such as “black or African-American and white"—that are the most common combinations in the United States. In addition, in regions where people of other multiracial combinations make up 1 percent or more of the population, schools and other government agencies will be asked to report additional corresponding categories.

Individuals who still don’t fit into a category will be reported as part of a “balance” category, which serves the purpose of an “other” category.

The memo was released in conjunction with last week’s distribution of Census 2000 forms, which were mailed to households across the country.

These forms will permit respondents to check off more than one category, such as “white” and “Filipino,” yielding 63 possibilities for various race combinations. They also contain a separate question for whether individuals are of Hispanic ethnicity, thus bringing the total possible options for race or ethnicity to 126.

While asking schools to keep track of this many categories would be totally “unworkable” and “meaningless,” Mr. Der said, even a dozen will be taxing on school districts and state education agencies. “How we handle it administratively is going to be a long, drawn-out project,” he said.

Recognizing Diversity

Among the outstanding questions cited by Mr. Der and others is whether schools will have to resurvey students regarding their race and ethnicity. Many schools haven’t updated that information since the students’ parents filled out forms for them to enter kindergarten.

Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, added that the new categories will make it harder for schools to track trends in student achievement for minority groups that they’ve been following for decades.

But other school officials said that while the regulations will require more work, the change is needed to reflect the nation’s increasing diversity.

“Our school has 50 different languages spoken by children here in the school,” said Mary M. Reece, the principal of Menlo Park School, an elementary school in Edison, N.J. “We do a lot of activities here to celebrate diversity. If we were given more information [on race and ethnicity from parents], it would be a benefit.”

“We deal with cultural diversity in Fairfax County schools. We have 100 languages,” added Deeb P. Kitchen, a director in the office of information technology for the 154,000-student system in Northern Virginia. “If the government is saying, ‘Move to more than five categories,’ we will, too.”

Fairfax County, like many other diverse districts, has already expanded the categories for race and ethnicity for its own data-collection purposes. Mr. Kitchen said the district added a “multiracial” category several years ago for data collection after a group of interracial families “took exception that we called them ‘other.’ ”

When it comes time for the district to report racial information to the office for civil rights, it apportions students in the “multiracial” category back to the five required categories according to the percentage of those populations in the district.

In California, Mr. Der said, schools have been required to collect and report student data for Cambodians and Laotians for a few years, and for Filipinos since the 1970s.

The San Diego schools collect data for 19 ethnic or racial categories, and the San Francisco district collects for 10, including a category added this year called “declined to state.”

Gary W. Knowles, an educational research specialist for the San Diego system, said his district will go to the expense and trouble to make its categories match what the new guidance is requesting. “Give me the requirements and the means, and I’ll do it,” he said.

But Mr. Knowles wondered whether having so many categories for race or ethnicity really makes sense in the long run, given that only a few categories receive attention in most school policy discussions.

“The usefulness is a big question,” he said. “It may satisfy some political demands—people of mixed race would like to have themselves identified as such—but once you do that, what do you do after that?”

The OMB memo does not state when the new federal categories will go into effect. An official from the office for civil rights speculated that because schools will need information from the 2000 Census to determine the greater-than-1-percent categories, they won’t be expected to comply until 2003 or 2004.

Funding at Stake

The OMB memo also clarified that, for civil rights purposes, government agencies will count a person only one time, regardless of whether he or she checks off more than one racial category. They’ll count responses that combine one minority category and white as members of the minority group.

That means, for example, that if a school reported that 6 percent of its students were “Asian and white,” the office for civil rights would consider all of them to be Asian.

This ruling allays some of the fears of civil rights groups that racial and ethnic categories would be diluted by the new census, said Deepa V. Iyer, a staff lawyer for the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said, adding that her group still has concerns that expanded race categories will “mean more complicated litigation” for civil rights.

In the meantime, school districts were busy last week educating children about the importance of the census, in the hope that they would encourage their parents to fill out their forms. Many schools used promotional materials developed for them by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Superintendents are more involved in this census than any I recall,” said Bruce Hunter, the director of public affairs for the American Association of School Administrators.

Census data are used to determine how much federal funding schools receive from such programs as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Schools Must Add New Ways To Count Races


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