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

Chapter 1. Making the Case: Background and Rationale

1.1 Leading up to the Change

Since 1997, federal agencies have been working to adopt the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. These standards replace those that have been in effect since 1977. The new standards separate race and ethnicity and include two categories for data on ethnicity. There are five categories for data on race, and respondents are now allowed to choose more than one race. The new standards are as follows:

    • Hispanic or Latino
    • Not Hispanic or Latino
    • American Indian or Alaska Native
    • Asian
    • Black or African American
    • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
    • White

In August 2006, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released proposed plans for revising the way state education agencies (SEA) (states) and local education agencies (LEA) (school districts) are expected to maintain, collect, and report data on race and ethnicity. After reviewing extensive comments and feedback, ED released Final Guidance on Maintaining, Collecting, and Reporting Racial and Ethnic Data to the U.S. Department of Education (Final Guidance) in October 2007.3 The Final Guidance, effective as of December 3, 2007, drives future reporting of racial and ethnic data to all programs within ED. The guidelines specify both the new categories for individual-level data, and the aggregated categories to be used for racial and ethnic data reported to ED. In August 2008, a letter was released by Bill Evers, ED's Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, to elaborate the Final Guidance. The letter is accompanied by a list of answers to related policy questions in both elementary/secondary education and postsecondary education settings.

It is important to change to the new standards now because they:

  • allow individuals to more accurately identify themselves;
  • are required for federal education eligibility and accountability reports;
  • align with other agencies that are using the new standards, removing the need for "dual" reports;
  • are consistent with Census data and other national data sets, facilitating state- and local- level policy analyses; and
  • reflect population changes.

Categories for Aggregated Federal Reporting

Regardless of the race combinations of individuals, each individual must be counted in exactly one of the following race and ethnicity combinations when being reported to ED or other federal agencies:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • White
  • Two or more races
  • Hispanic of any race.

Reporting requirements by 2010. States and districts will be required to report aggregated data (not individual student records) to ED using these new standards by the fall of 2010 for the 2010–11 school year. Note that this does not include aggregated data for the 2009–10 school year. For example, dropouts and high school completers for the 2009–10 school year, which may not be reported until the winter of 2010, may be reported under the old race and ethnicity categories.

The new standards are part of federal education reports that districts and states submit to receive funds such as those provided through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They are part of the required ED accountability reports collected through the EDFacts data collection system. Within ED, the Office for Civil Rights collects data at the school and district levels to assist with its enforcement of laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and national origin, among other personal characteristics. Under the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA), states are required to collect race and ethnicity data on students with disabilities. Data collected through the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education that account for progress in meeting the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act include information about students' race and ethnicity. All these data collections are tied to federal funding, and comply with the new OMB guidance for collecting racial and ethnic data.

The new race and ethnicity categories will also be used by other federal agencies in civil rights compliance monitoring and equal employment reporting for the public and private sectors and for all levels of government. The new racial and ethnic data standards have already been implemented by many federal agencies.

More accurate statistical information. Outside ED, the new race and ethnicity categories were used by the U.S. Bureau of the Census in data collection, tabulation, and reporting in the 2000 Census. Health agencies have since taken the initiative of adopting the OMB race and ethnicity categories in their data collections; the Federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) began to collect data using the new race and ethnicity categories in fall 2007.4

question point What Do the New Standards Mean to School Districts?
  • Race and ethnicity data have always been collected and reported to ED. Federal education funds are allocated through data reported to ED.
  • Continued civil rights enforcement is an important reason for maintaining accurate race and ethnicity information about individual students and staff members at the school and district levels.
  • Collecting and reporting racial and ethnic data using these standards will better reflect the current racial and ethnic makeup of communities. It not only allows school districts to allocate their human and financial resources more accurately and equitably, but also validates such decisions within their communities.
  • The new data collection format will afford individuals of multiracial background an opportunity to select categories that better represent themselves. It allows Hispanic populations to more accurately describe themselves, helping the school communities to better serve and support them.
  • Although work is involved in changing to the new standards, the new format, once understood and implemented, is more user-friendly because it acknowledges the racial and ethnic heritage of students, parents, and staff members.

The evolving racial and ethnic composition of the school population also provides a strong incentive for reporting data that more accurately reflect the student body. Parents want the opportunity to more fully describe their children's heritage. Districts and states need data to track and assess racial and ethnic disparities and to measure the effectiveness of school programs in reducing performance differences between groups of students. An effective accountability system relies on precise data, and the new categories can benefit operational decisions as well by more specifically acknowledging racial and ethnic heritage. For example, districts may use the more precise descriptions of their students' backgrounds to better provide instruction and services.


3 See appendix A for the full text of “Final Guidance on Maintaining, Collecting, and Reporting Racial and Ethnic Data to the U.S. Department of Education,” Federal Register, Vol. 72, No. 202, Friday, October 19, 2007.
4 As of the writing of the Final Guidance, the new race and ethnicity categories are adopted in the Employer Information Report (EEO-1). “The EEOC plans to update the other reports to use the same race and ethnic categories as the new EEO-1 but, before doing so, will give respondents a full reporting cycle to change their recordkeeping. Source: EEO Surveys.