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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 - Surveying Ethnicity and Race, On Paper and Face-to-Face: A Massachusetts District Data Collection through Paper Surveys and Interviews

Case Study
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Following the state's decision to shift to the new 1997 race and ethnicity data standards, Massachusetts school districts were tasked with collecting the data with new format beginning in the 2005–06 school year.

To aid the school districts in this transition, the Massachusetts Department of Education created a sample collection form accompanied by a letter to parents. The letters included the text, “If you would like to update the student data for your child, please complete the enclosed form and send it to your child's school by [date]. If we do not hear back from you, we will continue to report based on the student data we currently have.” This option of not responding to the re-surveying process eased the burden on parents and school staff, since the state's population is predominantly White and does not tend to change its racial or ethnic identification from year to year. However, while this practice may work in areas with homogenous student bodies, in relatively diverse districts it may be advisable to resurvey all students rather than give parents the option to stick with the selections made under the old system.

In Everett Public Schools, one such heterogeneous district, a couple of extra steps were taken to ensure greater accuracy in the race/ethnicity data collected. More than 40 languages are spoken here, so the district translated the collection form into the five predominant languages, which represented over 90 percent of the district's language distribution. When the changes were first implemented by the state, all students in the districts were asked once to re-identify their race and ethnic categories. After that base-line effort, the district required parents of both new and returning students1 to fill out the enrollment forms at the district's Parent Information Center (PIC), located at one of the high schools. The opportunity for face-to-face interviews with parents at the PIC, in their native language, was important because many of the district's parents have limited literacy skills in their native languages. While staffing each school with translators would not have been cost effective, the PIC had translators on site to conduct interviews in a number of the area's languages. By tailoring its data collection practices to its population's needs, Everett was able to remove most of its language barriers and to collect more complete self-identified racial and ethnic data.

1 Returning students are those who have left the school system for another community and have returned.