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How the Pandemic Is Affecting Schools’ Mandated Collection of Key Civil Rights Data

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 22, 2021 7 min read
Image of data.

The Biden administration is instructing school districts how to collect the latest high-profile trove of civil rights-related data about students and educators, despite concerns about how the pandemic will affect that process.

Instructions from the U.S. Department of Education about the 2020-21 Civil Rights Data Collection sent to school districts Thursday, for example, indicate that for discipline and safety incidents, the term “at school” refers to virtual as well as in-person activities. The instructions say student suspensions in virtual as well as in-person school settings should count the same; if students were temporarily blocked from their virtual classrooms and transferred to a different and supervised virtual setting, that’s a suspension.

There’s a section concerning student arrests in virtual schooling. And preschool expulsions include those stemming from both virtual and in-person activities, although the instructions specify that preschoolers who are moved to “more appropriate” settings shouldn’t be considered expelled.

More broadly, the department asks schools to indicate whether they offered only in-person instruction with additional safety protocols, only virtual instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic, a hybrid of the two, or if their instruction was unaffected by COVID-19 during the 2020-21 school year. How schools answer those questions affects their subsequent responses to different survey questions.

And districts are asked how many students were served in nondistrict settings as of Oct. 1 of last year, a number that may have shifted significantly over this school year in some places as students moved back and forth between classrooms, their homes, and other settings.

The Education Department’s instructions underscore concerns that virtual schooling and the disruptions to K-12 education more broadly caused by the pandemic could undermine the validity of the data collection. COVID-19 could also complicate discerning long-term trends when comparing this year’s information to previous years’ about key education issues and inequities students face. And it could be some time before this data is made available to the public.

And the instructions illustrate the challenges faced by the administration in overseeing the collection; detailed questions about issues like discipline and academic disparities predate the pandemic. Some civil rights advocates believe this should lead the Education Department to push back the survey to the next school year.

Yet the Trump administration already delayed the Civil Rights Data Collection originally scheduled for 2019-20 to 2020-21; the collection normally takes place every two years. Delaying it again would only increase the amount of time between data collections at a time when the pandemic has already exacerbated inequities in education that policymakers and others often highlight using the data collection.

There’s also a parallel between concerns about the quality of this year’s data collection, and arguments that scores from federally mandated tests this spring won’t be an accurate reflection of where students stand academically.

The CRDC for the 2020-21 school year was developed and finalized by the Trump administration before President Joe Biden took office. That’s meant the Biden administration hasn’t been able to shape important elements of the high-profile set of data in key ways like the Obama administration did; the Biden administration could have delayed the collection again but chose not to.

“I absolutely think it’s more important during the pandemic,” said Deb Temkin, a vice president at the research group Child Trends, referring to the CRDC. She highlighted how the collection can help inform studies of schools with large shares of students of color and changes in the teaching profession, among other things.

Yet the urgency of identifying those disparities won’t guard against reporting difficulties faced by school districts that could affect CRDC data, Temkin also pointed out.

“It could be very misleading,” she said.

In a letter to school superintendents accompanying the data collection forms and instructions, acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg, who oversees the department’s office for civil rights (OCR), acknowledged the challenges educators face with the data collection due to disruptions to in-person learning.

“All of us at OCR recognize the ongoing challenges that state educational agencies, [local educational agencies], and schools have been experiencing due to the shifting dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Goldberg wrote.

The pandemic has highlighted challenges about the relationship between student privacy, virtual classes, and discipline. And whether to hold students accountable for absences this school year has also become a pressing issue for educators.

How the pandemic disrupted civil rights data

The CRDC, established in 1968, asks most public schools and districts an extensive set of questions about students and educators across a broad range of subjects, from demographics and discipline to coursework and teachers. Presidential administrations can propose adding and subtracting some questions, and those proposals go through a public comment period before final adoption.

For 2020-21, the Trump Education Department changed the CRDC to add optional questions about religious bullying and new data points about sexual assault or attempted sexual assault by school staff. Making new questions optional in the CRDC is standard practice across administrations, and the Biden administration’s new instructions to schools highlight that answering these questions is optional for school leaders. See the list of added and dropped CRDC questions here.

The Trump administration also eliminated or reduced parts of the survey that dealt with school-level spending, data about preschool suspension broken down by different student subgroups, disaggregated information on advanced coursework, and teacher absenteeism, among other things.

These changes led to a backlash from Democrats in Congress and some civil rights groups. Some school officials also raised concerns about the practical problems new items in the data collection could create.

Last December, the Education Department received final approval for these and other changes from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

Although such changes to the CRDC attract scrutiny and controversy, they don’t affect most of the questions the department asks local education officials to answer. Still, the sequence of events means that the Biden administration took over too late to reinsert questions removed by the Trump administration that the Biden team might have wanted to keep.

A “resource center” page for the CRDC states that under the current schedule, schools will start submitting information about the 2020-21 year in early 2022.

Last month, several civil rights groups urged the Education Department to forgo collecting data for the 2020-21 school year and instead conduct the collection for 2021-22.

“Corrections and improvements can also be made to the survey instrument that was finalized on Dec. 28, 2020, to return to a survey that provides more useful information about students’ educational opportunities and experiences,” the groups wrote to the department March 22. They also asked the department to make the data collection annual.

For schools that offered only virtual instruction or a hybrid, the Education Department’s instructions also ask them to identify if students were physically present in classrooms while teachers worked remotely, if students were at remote locations, or both.

More crucial than ever, but possibly misleading?

During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged a return to the general principles that drove the Obama administration’s approach to issues like Title IX, transgender student rights, and addressing racial disparities across a range of issues.

Earlier this month, for example, a Department of Justice memo said Title IX protects students from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And a Biden executive order from January declared that racial equity is a top administration priority.

Assuming the biennial schedule resumes, the Biden administration would have to wait until the 2022-23 school year survey to develop and administer the next CRDC with those types of priorities in mind. And the information from that collection might not be released until around the time the president’s first term is wrapping up.

Out of the 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 school years, the CRDC is in all likelihood taking place when the fewest number of students have consistent in-person instruction.

The Obama administration relied on the CRDC when developing and advocating for its policy agenda. One of the most prominent cases is how Obama officials used information about racial disparities in discipline to inform controversial guidance to schools, in which the administration told K-12 officials how to ensure that their policies for suspensions and expulsions didn’t discriminate against different racial groups. (The Trump administration repealed that guidance in 2018, but Biden pledged to reinstate it.)

Just because the CRDC is sweeping doesn’t make it infallible, irrespective of pandemic-related challenges. There have been persistent and significant concerns about the accuracy of its data, from inaccuracies about school shootings to seemingly inscrutable data about school segregation.

Evie Blad, Staff Writer contributed to this article.

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