New Rules on Student Racial Data Proposed

By Michelle R. Davis — August 29, 2006 6 min read
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As a growing number of school-age children think of themselves as being of more than one race, new guidelines proposed by the Department of Education would require that schools allow students to identify themselves as multiracial.

The guidelines would also, for the first time as well, allow states to report students as multiracial to the federal government, instead of being forced to report only one racial category for each student.

The changes could have implications for civil rights enforcement, educational research, and the distribution of federal education aid, although Education Department officials said they would likely have a relatively minor impact on the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that student achievement data be broken out by race.

Two-Part Question

The Department of Education’s recently proposed guidance for how schools should gather information on students’ race and ethnicity calls for schools first to ask sudents whether they are Hispanic. Then, students would be asked their race, and respondents could for the first time select more than one race.

1. Are you Hispanic/Latino?
ο Yes
ο No

2. Please select one or more of the following races for yourself:

ο American Indian or Alaska Native.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains a tribal affiliation or community attachment.

ο Asian.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.

ο Black or African American.
A person having origin in any of the black racial groups of Africa.

ο Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.

ο White.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“Parents were saying that they and their children were multiracial and were being forced artificially to select one race that didn’t represent who they were,” said Steven Y. Winnick, a lawyer in Washington and a former deputy general counsel in the Education Department who worked on the issue. “This honors that concern.”

The guidance, which appeared in the Federal Register on Aug. 7, says states and school districts already using a multiracial category in collecting information should begin submitting data that way to the Education Department for the 2006-07 school year. By fall 2009, all states and districts would have to follow the procedures.

Under current rules, schools and districts have been only required to collect data on students, as well as for employees, in five racial and ethnic categories: Hispanic, black or African-American, white, Asian (including native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders), or American Indian/Alaska native. Students or their parents can choose only one category. However, many schools and districts have gone beyond those categories by providing a wider array of choices or by breaking them into more specific subcategories. And many already allow students to be identified as multiracial.

Seen as ‘Reasonable’

Under the proposed guidelines, schools would be required to use a two-question format to collect student data on race and ethnicity. The first would ask whether the student is Hispanic or Latino. The federal government says that means a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.

School officials would then ask a parent or student to select one or more races from a revised list of categories: American Indian or Alaska native, Asian, black or African American, native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or white. If a parent or student refused to identify a race for the student, the proposed guidance says, “observer identification” could be used, meaning a school official would make the determination.

Under the five racial and ethnic categories, states and districts could also allow students to select a subcategory—for example, Japanese, Chinese, or Korean under the Asian category.

“This seems very reasonable,” David L. Smith, an evaluation consultant at the Nevada Department of Education who has followed the issue closely, said of the proposed guidelines. “The effect will be far less than what I’ve been worried about for a while.”

Until now, even if districts allowed students to select more than one racial category to describe themselves, states have only been permitted to submit data to the Education Department based on one racial category per student. Under the proposed guidance, states would be able to submit data for multiracial students under the category “two or more races.”

But if students identified themselves as Hispanic as well as by a race, they would be grouped in the Hispanic category for reporting purposes, not under “two or more races,” under the proposal.

While that could mean changes to the number of students in, say, the African-American category by draining away some students who previously classified themselves only as one race, several people said they thought the effects would be minimal.

“I don’t think anybody’s expecting change on a grand scale,” said Ross C. Santy, the deputy assistant secretary for data and information in the Education Department’s office of planning, evaluation, and policy development. “We truly believe that this is going to make data more accurate.”

The guidance will not have an immediate impact on whether schools and districts are making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law, said Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman. The law requires that students in “major” racial and ethnic subgroups reach annual educational targets for their schools. Under the law, states decide which racial and ethnic categories to consider and will continue to do so, Mr. Colby said.

However, the department points out that the availability of the “two or more races” choice will affect comparisons of past years’ student achievement data under the law.

“It won’t be comparing apples to oranges, but it does require the help of people who … know how to do it properly,” said Mr. Santy.

Across the federal government, data collection on race and ethnicity has been done on a uniform basis since the 1970s to allow information on such measures as income, unemployment, and education to be compared. But individuals could only choose one of the five racial and ethnic categories to define themselves.

In 1997, the White House Office of Management and Budget adopted new standards for data collection on race across the federal government. For example, the OMB standards made “Asian” a separate racial category from “native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.”

Changing Standards

The public encountered the OMB standards with the 2000 U.S. Census, which was the first to allow respondents to select more than one race for themselves. The census found that 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, or 6.8 million people, identified themselves as belonging to two or more racial groups. Of the U.S. population under age 18, 4 percent, or 2.8 million, were categorized as belonging to two or more races.

So the change was much needed, Mr. Santy said.

“If Census 2000 told us anything, it’s that younger populations of the country are identifying themselves as multiracial in growing amounts,” he said. “Too many systems perpetuate this concept that you have to pick just one.”

Those in charge of data collection for states and school districts have been eagerly awaiting the new Education Department guidelines. Many have held off on changing or updating their data-collection systems in anticipation of the release, said Deborah Newby, the director for data quality at the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.

“Most folks would say this is overdue,” said Ms. Newby. “Part of [data collectors’] anxiousness is because … you can’t just change overnight.”

Ms. Newby said she was pleased with the timeline proposed by the Education Department. The department says it held off publishing its proposed guidance until the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published its own guidelines last November on race and ethnicity in data collection. The EEOC’s race guidelines apply to data collection on school employees.

The goal was to “minimize the burden of implementation” on local and state education agencies, so they could “use the same reporting requirements for students and staff,” the Education Department says in its guidance.

The Education Department will accept written comments on the proposed guidance until Sept. 21.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as New Rules on Student Racial Data Proposed


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