Equity & Diversity

Study Blasts Proposed Changes in Race, Ethnicity Data

By Lynn Olson — September 29, 2006 4 min read
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Proposed changes in the way schools and states report data on students’ race and ethnicity to the federal government “would make it extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible,” to conduct research, monitor civil rights compliance, and enforce accountability, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

The proposed guidelines, published in the Federal Register on Aug. 7, require the use of a two-question format to identify students’ race or ethnicity. Students would be first identified as Hispanic or non-Hispanic and then identified by one or more races.

“Data Proposals Threaten Education and Civil Rights Accountability” is available from The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

When institutions, including schools and districts, aggregate the data, any student who is Hispanic would no longer be classified by race, such as white or black. In addition, any student identified as more than one race would be counted in a multiracial category with no further breakdown. (“New Rules on Student Racial Data Proposed,” Aug. 30, 2006.)

The U.S. Department of Education proposed the changes to comply with 1997 standards from the White House Office of Management and Budget that affect data collection on race and ethnicity across the federal government.

The Civil Rights Project’s report used data from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tested the reading and mathematics performance of a representative sample of students in each state and nationally, to look at the impact of the proposed changes. The national test collected data on students both under the new rule and under the current method, which identifies students by only one race or ethnic group.

The analysis found that the proposed changes would generally reduce the percentage of students identified as white or black, while dramatically increasing the percent of students identified as Hispanic, both nationally and in many states. The impact would be less noticeable in the Asian or American Indian categories, the report says.

For example, for public schools nationally, the percentage of students taking the 4th grade reading test in 2005 who were white would drop from 57 percent to 46 percent—11 percentage points. The proportion of the test-takers who were Hispanic would jump from 19 percent to 29 percent, a gain of 10 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the percent of white 4th graders achieving proficiency in reading would rise from 39 percent to 41 percent. The percent of 4th grade Hispanics scoring proficient or higher in reading would climb from 15 percent to 19 percent.

“The proposed guidelines will produce changes in the racial composition of the educational system,” said Chungmei Lee, a researcher at the Civil Rights Project who co-wrote the report with the project’s director, Gary Orfield. “We feel that these new changes very seriously undermine the research and policy-analysis work that we would need to do to understand changes in racial inequalities.”

Undermining NCLB?

The authors also warn that the proposed changes could undermine the reporting of achievement data by race and ethnicity under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law holds schools and districts accountable for making adequate yearly progress based largely on state test data for the student population as a whole and for major racial and ethnic groups, among other student subgroups.

“If the new classification system were imposed and adopted by states for reporting on racial/ ethnic categories, many schools may meet, or fail to meet, AYP based on the reclassification of students and not through any educational improvements or curricular changes in the schools themselves,” the authors write. “By rearranging the number of students in each subgroup, the proposed reporting guidelines would render state accountability meaningless.”

John B. Diamond, an assistant professor in Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said he agreed that the effects of such changes were important to consider. “If we are to make these kinds of sweeping changes,” he said, “we should be very cautious and careful about the implications because they could be very long term.”

The report, “Data Proposals Threaten Education and Civil Rights Accountability,” recommends that the proposed changes be rescinded, and that better procedures for accurate counts be devised in collaboration with researchers and community leaders. Individuals had until Sept. 21 to comment on the proposed rules.

The Education Department could not be reached for comment.

Deborah Newby, the director of the data quality and standards project at the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, said that “nobody wants to overlook the policy implications” of the changes to reporting data on race and ethnicity. But, she cautioned, the way the U.S. Department of Education currently collects data on race and ethnicity is outdated, “and the states have been waiting for guidance on that for quite a while.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Study Blasts Proposed Changes in Race, Ethnicity Data

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