Equity & Diversity

Worries Surface in Racial-Identity Comments

By Sean Cavanagh — October 13, 2006 7 min read
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State and school officials, advocacy organizations, and members of Congress have raised objections to proposed federal guidelines for collecting and reporting the race and ethnicity of students, contending that the changes would distort, and in some cases obscure, the true number of students belonging to different minority populations.

Those concerns were included in more than 170 public comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Education since the guidelines were published in the Federal Register Aug. 7. The comment period ended Sept. 21.

Racial Counts and Test Scores

One result of recommended changes in the collection and reporting of student information on race, according to a recent study, would be a significant rise or fall in reading and math scores that could affect a school’s No Child Left Behind status. The study uses recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores to predict NCLB outcomes.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Racial Counts and Test Scores

SOURCE: Harvard Civil Rights Project

Under the proposal, schools would be required to allow students for the first time to identify themselves as multiracial—a change that many critics and supporters of the guidelines alike agree is needed to reflect the varied racial makeup of the school population. It would also have states, for the first time, report students as multiracial to the federal government.

But in letters to the Education Department, critics said the Bush administration’s plan for collecting and reporting race and ethnicity, if adopted, would potentially inflate the number of students who are reported as Hispanic and decrease the number of students in other racial categories.

“The proposed racial and ethnic categories are not clear and do not represent a real improvement over the existing system,” Nancy W. Larson, the Minnesota education department’s supervisor of data and reporting, wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to the federal agency. “The boundaries between some [racial] categories are not clear,” she added, “and do not represent meaningful distinctions between ethnic or racial groups.”

Advocates for black, Asian, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations predicted that the percentage of students in those categories would fall as a result of the changes. Some of those critics suggest the guidelines could undermine civil rights enforcement and skew results under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to report the academic progress of students in different racial categories.

“African-American students will be undercounted,” wrote Michael T.S. Wotorson, the national education director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The civil rights organization, headquartered in Baltimore, worries that the guidelines “could make it difficult for citizens to clearly assess the gains we’ve made as a nation and to plan for our collective future.”

Capitol Hill Concerns

The Education Department released the proposed guidelines in response to standards issued in 1997, during the Clinton administration, by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Those standards said federal agencies should permit individuals to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. The standard was used for the first time on the 2000 U.S. Census.

Under the department’s proposal, states and districts would have to begin using the new racial and ethnic categories by fall 2009. The federal agency has not said when it might make the guidelines final.

Some school officials praised the Education Department for issuing the guidelines, which they said would give a more accurate picture of their schools.

Bethann Canada, the director of educational information management for the Virginia education department, said she often hears from parents of multiracial students who tell her, “I don’t want to have to choose one” category.

“That’s a big source of frustration among our population, which is growing increasingly diverse,” Ms. Canada said in an interview.

Others, however, say the new policy will arbitrarily skew estimates of racial populations within schools, which could in turn affect civil rights enforcement and other issues.

Sixty congressional Democrats, including Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, sent a letter to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on Sept. 29 asking to meet with her about the guidelines.

“Disaggregated racial and ethnic data, as you well know, is one of the cornerstones of the No Child Left Behind Act,” the lawmakers stated, “and we urge the department to refrain from any changes that could undermine this principle in any way.”

In a statement, Education Department officials said they were considering the public comments in deciding on final guidelines. Asked about criticism that Hispanics would see their numbers inflated as a result of the policy, the administration said several government agencies have already adopted the multiracial policy, and it “has been shown to yield more accurate data about Hispanics or Latinos.”

Under the proposed guidelines, schools would be required to follow a two-question format, asking students first to identify themselves as Hispanic or non-Hispanic. Students are then asked to identify their race, choosing from five categories.

Once that information is collected, states and schools would report race and ethnicity in seven separate categories. Students who are identified as Hispanic would no longer be identified as belonging to any race, but be put in a separate category.

All non-Hispanics, by contrast, would be reported as belonging to one of six other categories: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; black or African-American; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; white; or “two or more races” or multiracial. If categorized as multiracial, there would be no further breakdown of a student’s race.

That proposal, critics say, would effectively lump many students into the Hispanic group, even if they consider themselves both Hispanic and another race.

“When parents select their racial identity, these may be the choices in their mind: ‘I am Hispanic AND I am black,’ ” Ms. Larson of Minnesota wrote in her letter. “However, they will be arbitrarily classified as Hispanic when the data is aggregated for the district or the state.”

Other worries emerged in state comments. California and North Carolina officials raised concerns over the costs in changing data systems to account for the racial-counting changes.

Many of the public comments submitted to the Education Department echoed concerns raised in a report released last month by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. (“Study Blasts Proposed Changes in Race, Ethnicity Data,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

The report said the guidelines could have a broad impact on civil rights enforcement and on how states fared under the No Child Left Behind law, which requires states to make adequate yearly progress in reading and mathematics scores for students in different racial and ethnic categories.

Harvard researchers used an analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which collected student information using a one-race-per-child model until switching to the multiracial approach being proposed by the department in 2003.

Currently, each state works out an agreement with the department for which racial and ethnic groups are considered in determining adequate yearly progress. The proposed multiracial category would “not necessarily” force states to change the racial categories they have set up, according to the department’s notice in the Federal Register. A state seeking to change its racial and ethnic categories would have to submit a request to the department to do so, according to the notice.

The proposed guidelines say that states could also “bridge” the racial data they collect through the two different reporting methods—to compare student information before and after the changes.

Department officials said they were reviewing the concerns raised in the Harvard study. But overall, the administration seeks to ensure that NCLB data “presents an accurate reflection of academic progress.”

Other Options?

Some organizations have suggested alternatives to the Bush administration guidelines. In a letter to the department, the Washington-based Association of American Medical Colleges said it has been using the same two-question format, which the department is now proposing, in collecting information on medical school applicants, only to discover that the policy has been confusing for many individuals.

As a result, the aamc is considering a switch to a one-question policy that will ask applicants to chose among six categories, which include one ethnicity—Hispanic—plus five races. Students would choose any combination of the six; all of those single-race or multirace totals are reported, even if they don’t add up to a 100 percent total.

Medical association officials acknowledged that their model would be a “radical departure” from common practice in reporting on race, they told the department in their letter. But “race and ethnicity are complex constructs,” they added, “and they do not lend themselves to a set of mutually exclusive categories.” The aamc asked the department to consider allowing the association to use the one-question model.

Deborah Newby, the director of the data-quality and standards project at the Council of Chief State School Officers, believes most states were glad the department issued guidance that would allow for the identification of multiracial students.

While she does not want to see the process delayed, Ms. Newby said she hopes administration officials address states’ concerns.

“What is needed,” she said, “is a conversation on how to mitigate the unintended consequences.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Worries Surface in Racial-Identity Comments


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