Equity & Diversity

States Confront Student Heritage To Fulfill No Child Left Behind Act

By Lynn Olson — February 18, 2004 4 min read
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When Illinois officials decided to drop the “other” category from their list of racial and ethnic classifications for students taking state tests this spring, their main thought was to comply with federal law. In their view, “other” was too vague to help classify students under the No Child Left Behind Act.

What the action provoked, however, was the outrage of parents who complained that their children would be forced to slight their mixed heritage.

To remedy the situation, at least for this testing season, the state education department last month notified district superintendents that students and schools would be allowed to check one or more groups to identify race or ethnicity. Test results for students identifying themselves in more than one category will be aggregated and reported as a separate group on the Illinois School Report Card.

And, if those numbers are large enough, that subgroup will also count in determining whether a school or district has made “adequate yearly progress” to satisfy the No Child Left Behind law.

“Of course people were offended, as I knew they would be,” said Dorland A. Norris, a deputy superintendent in the 9,000-student Champaign Community Unit School District 4.

In preparation for this year’s testing, the district last year sent letters to families that had previously identified their children in the “other” category, telling them of the change and asking them to select from one of five choices: American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Hispanic; black, not of Hispanic origin; or white, not of Hispanic origin.

“Some sent the information back in,” Ms. Norris said, “but others were really offended by it.”

Districts across the nation are confronting the same issue, as they strive to comply with federal law that requires states to identify students by subgroup and determine whether each subgroup is meeting annual performance targets. Meanwhile, they await further guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

Guidance Delayed

Since the 1970s, for civil rights monitoring and other purposes, the federal education agency has classified students according to the five categories now used in Illinois.

But in 1997, the White House Office of Management and Budget directed all federal agencies to expand the number of categories they use to reflect the increasing diversity of American society. On the 2000 U.S. Census forms, individuals were able to mark multiple groups.

Federal agencies had until January 2003 to comply with the new guidelines. But the Department of Education asked for and received a waiver to wait until this coming fall.

“I think the delay, in part, has really just been because it’s a very complicated issue,” Brian Jones, the department’s general counsel, said last week.

States and districts collect racial data for a number of purposes, he noted, so the department has been trying to coordinate its efforts with those of other federal agencies. He said the department was “getting close” to having a proposal for public comment.

That’s left states and districts in the lurch, particularly as they confront a new mandate that judges their performance based, in part, on the academic achievement of “major racial and ethnic groups.” Because the No Child Left Behind law does not define what those subgroups are, the federal department has left it up to states. Most have chosen to use the same five categories as those in Illinois. A few, such as Oregon, have added a “multiethnic” or “multiracial” category.

Without firm guidance from the federal government, “we didn’t think that we should go that route,” said Karen Craven, a spokeswoman for the Illinois state board of education.

Mr. Jones said there are now some 3 million K-12 students with multiracial backgrounds. The federal department is trying to determine which combinations are most common, but certainly won’t go higher than 15.

If there are too many categories, individual subgroups may have too few students in them to be counted for accountability purposes, actually dissipating the effect of the law.

“On the other side,” Mr. Jones said, “there’s a concern about making sure that you’re allowing kids to fully express their racial makeup and that sort of thing, and not wanting to force kids to pick and choose among their backgrounds for purposes of racial data.”

Authentic Categories

Research by Catherine Cornbleth, a professor of education at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, suggests that the focus on racial categories might be out of sync with how young people, in particular, think about themselves.

Based on interviews with 62 high school juniors and seniors, she found that about one-third of the teenagers rejected racial or ethnic identity markers, and others downplayed them.

“My hunch is that although young people as they grow older still will identify themselves in racial and ethnic terms,” Ms. Cornbleth said, “they are likely to increasingly insist that mixed ancestry and ‘none of the above’ be recognized as authentic categories of ethnic or racial distinction.”

Ms. Craven, the state board’s spokeswoman, said that eventually Illinois hopes to have a system that provides each student with a unique identification number at the time parents enroll him or her in school.

But whether the state will add a multiracial or multiethnic category back to its government forms remains to be seen.

Ms. Norris of the Champaign district said: “We’re just kind of waiting for some guidance, because we don’t want parents unduly upset, or students, for that matter. This is a very sensitive issue.”

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