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Managing an Identity Crisis: Forum Guide to Implementing New Federal Race and Ethnicity Categories
NFES 2008-802
October 2008

Case Study - Everyone Learns from Early Adopters: Lessons from the Proactive Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Case Study
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Conversations began in early 2004 among staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about changing the state's handling of race and ethnicity data to follow the 1997 OMB standards. Rather than wait for final guidance from ED, Massachusetts decided to go ahead with the change, readying the state for the impending new standards.

That same year, the state discussed the shift to new categories with its school districts and began training district and school staff. At its spring 2004 district/school meeting—one of the state's annual meetings that provide venues for training and discussing issues such as upcoming changes to data collection system, data quality issues, application updates, and reviews of application use—the state notified districts of its plans to change the race and ethnicity collection and reporting practices beginning in the 2005–06 school year. Detailed information about the implementation was provided at the following meeting in the fall of 2004.

Questions that arose in these annual meetings were later posted on the state's website in a FAQ format. Meeting attendees raised concerns that ranged from the legality of the collection, to the rationale for the change, to ways of dealing with those who refuse to provide race and ethnicity information. The FAQ was posted during implementation and is still available at Leading up to the introduction of the new categories, the state posted sample letters to parents and educators on its website for its districts to use as they communicated the coming changes. These letters were found to be a useful means of introducing the new standards at the local level and are thought to have contributed to a smoother transition to the new system.

Additionally, the state implemented a two-digit coding scheme consisting of all 62 of the possible race and ethnicity combinations under the 1997 standards, one of which each respondent was to be assigned, thus combining their responses to the ethnicity and race questions into a single code. Under this system, a white, non-Hispanic respondent was coded as "01" and one who chose Hispanic and all five of the race categories received a code of "63." The state ran into code-related data quality issues because it used some of the same codes in the new scheme that it had used in the past. Black, for example, was "03" under the old system, but was "02" in the new system, with "03" being replaced by Asian; thus, some confusion and coding errors occurred. The state implemented additional data quality reviews to ensure accuracy and has resolved such issues.