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

Exhibit 4.2 Questions and Answers About Re-Identification and Observation

Q: Does the [state/school district] encourage schools to resurvey current employees and students using the new race and ethnicity categories as soon as possible?

A: Yes. Opportunities for individuals to self-identify using the new categories should be provided as soon as possible. Employment and registration forms should be updated to reflect the changes.  Supplemental pages for existing forms could be used to minimize additional costs of printing.  For some districts that have already allowed employees access to the internal private website, staff members could be asked to voluntarily and confidentially self-identify. Other methods that achieve the same result would be acceptable.

Q: Do we have to re-identify everyone?  Since the U.S. Department of Education only requires seven categories, could we just ask students or staff who are currently “Asian/Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” to re-identify themselves?

A: The U.S. Department of Education encourages schools and agencies to allow all students and staff the opportunity to re-identify their race and ethnicity under the new standards.  Although this is not a requirement, there are a couple of disadvantages to re-identifying only selected groups.  First, the Final Guidance requires the new information to be available at the local level for civil right compliance.  Second, re-inventorying only some students could create a perception among respondents that schools are singling out one racial group. It would also deny individuals who want to self-identify with multiple races the opportunity to do so. 

Q: We routinely collect more categories than the five racial groups required by the Final Guidance.  Should we change?

A: Not if the additional categories your agency collects are subcategories of the five, such as Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Asian Indian, or Vietnamese under “Asian.”  These subcategories can always be collapsed into the five categories.

Q: What should we do if an individual who self-identifies as Hispanic/Latino does not answer the part of the question about race?

A: It is an important part of the process to educate data providers and collectors about the Federal requirement to separate ethnicity and race.  Correspondence and forms need to explain that these are two parts of one question.  Follow up for racial identification will be needed in many cases.  As a last resort, an observer may fill in the information.

Q: What should we do if we believe that a student or a staff member is of a different race or ethnicity than he/she claims to be?

A: The school or district must accept an individual's self-identification of his or her race and ethnicity. Self-identification is a basic principle underlying these changes.  The Final Guidance specifies that in elementary and secondary level, the identification of a student's racial and ethnic categories is made primarily by parents or guardians.  A high school student may self-identify his or her own race and ethnicity category.

Q: What should we do if an individual refuses to self-identify using the new race and ethnicity categories?

A:  As a next-to-last resort, an observer may look for this information in existing employment or student records.  If these sources are not available, the observer may rely on visual observation for the purpose of selecting one or more race and ethnicity categories.  See exhibit 4.1 for specific guidance in this regard.