Key Takeaways and Emerging Issues From the Feds’ Massive Civil Rights Data Survey

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 29, 2018 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education released its 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection last week, updating the most comprehensive database there is on opportunity gaps, discipline disparities, and other civil rights issues for more than 50.6 million students in nearly every K-12 public school in the country.

The main focus of initial reaction was on the deep and continuing racial gaps, in both discipline and access to the advanced academic courses students need to graduate prepared for college and careers. In case you missed it, here are some of the key takeaways from what we know so far:

  • Students of Color Face Persistent Disparities in Access to Advanced STEM Courses The Education Department data shows that in general, black and Latino students took fewer such classes than their white peers. And although they had similar access to schools offering Algebra 1 in 8th grade, a smaller proportion of them were enrolled in the class.
  • Chronic Absenteeism on the Rise since 2013-14 More than 8 million students nationwide were reported chronically absent from school in 2015-16, federal data show, but some states and districts are doing better than others.
  • Schools ‘Less Safe for Black and Brown Children’ National experts and civil rights advocates say new federal data that show black students and students with disabilities remain vastly over-represented among students involved in police interactions should come as no surprise.
  • On-Site Police, Security More Common at Majority-Black Secondary Schools An analysis of the civil rights data by Child Trends found more than 54 percent of secondary schools where three-quarters of students were black had school resource officers, compared to only 41 percent of middle and high schools where three-quarters of students were white. However, the initially released civil rights data may undercount the number of school resource officers on hand at schools. In the data collection’s school survey, the question of whether they had a “sworn law enforcement officer” on campus was skipped for more than 69,000 schools, due to an error in how the questions were transferred over from the 2013-14 survey.

Data Issues in the Civil Rights Collection

It’s not uncommon for the Civil Rights Data Collection, which is conducted every two years, to add in updates and corrections over the months following the release, as states notice technical glitches or individual schools do a double-take at shocking statistics. Nor is the federal data set unique; school-ratings organization GreatSchools last week announced a rocky start to its efforts to honor schools for effectively preparing students for college because of missing data.

For more, check out the explainer “4 Things to Know About Ed. Dept.'s Massive Civil Rights Database.”

Going forward, here are some of the issues researchers and education advocates will be exploring, as well as some of the problems cropping up in the data so far:

Students With Disabilities

The data show students with disabilities continue to be disproportionately likely to be suspended out of school, expelled, and arrested at school than other students, and they are also at greater risk of being bullied, not just based on disability but sex and race, too.

The Education Department reported that 122,000 students, or one-fifth of 1 percent of all students, were physically restrained or secluded at school in 2015-16.

While students with disabilities made up 12 percent of all students, they made up 71 percent of all those restrained and 66 percent of students secluded at school. Prior civil rights data have shown that often special education students were restrained multiple times.

One new indicator on school profiles lets education advocates compare how many days of school students miss from suspensions, which new research shows can be large and damaging for students in special education.

Crime at School

The Education Department also for the first time offered details on “serious crimes,” including gun violence and sexual assaults. For example, 235 schools nationwide reported shootings on campus, both with and without injuries; more than half of these were reported from just three states: California (19 percent), Florida (14 percent), and Ohio (20 percent).

However, with such small overall numbers, reporting problems can be magnified. Of the 1,100 rapes reported on campus in 2015-16, more than 200 were attributed to a single district in Murrieta, Calif.—where officials were quick to note that the results were from “errors in data translation” and there had been no actual rapes or sexual assaults at schools there.

Juvenile Justice Education

The new civil rights data asks much more in-depth questions about education in correctional facilities for school-age young people.

Data from prior years showed that students in many juvenile prisons receive less instructional time (as the 2013-14 map at left shows, in some cases as little as a few hours a week) and more than half of the facilities do not offer students all of the core high school classes they would need to graduate. Yet corrections administrators have argued that instructional time and accountability has proven difficult for highly mobile students in the justice system, who may be released or transferred in a matter of weeks or months.

To address that, the 2015-16 data asks both how many total hours of instruction are offered each week, and the number of students who participate in educational programs for different lengths of time, from as little as 15 days or less, all the way up to more than 180 days, a full regular school year. Like all schools, corrections education programs also have to provide new information about how many students participate in distance learning and programs to recover high school credit or earn college credit.

However, there will be holes in that picture. Of the more than 600 juvenile justice facilities tat reported operating in 2015-16, a system error meant more than 400 were not able to submit full information on their schools. It’s not clear whether these gaps will be filled with updates or at the next data collection, which is in the field now.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.