Skip Navigation
Racial and Ethnic Classifications Used by Public Schools
NCES: 96092
May 1996


  • Approximately half (55 percent) of all public schools collect data about students' race and ethnicity only when students initially register for school in the district. Another 17 percent collect these data at initial registration and whenever students change schools within the district. One-quarter of public schools collect racial and ethnic data on an annual basis (Figure 1).

  • A sizable number of schools (41 percent) reported that there are students in their schools for whom the five standard federal categories are not accurately descriptive (Table 5). Of the 31 percent of all schools that could estimate the number of students for whom this applied, the majority (84 percent) reported that it applied to less than 5 percent of their total student population.

  • The majority of public schools (73 percent) reported that they use only the five standard federal categories to classify the race and ethnicity of students (Figure 2). Of the remaining 27 percent of schools that use classifications other than these five categories, 10 percent use "other" or " undesignated," with space for indicating a specific race or ethnicity. Another 5 percent of schools reported the use of "other" without space for specification. A general "multiracial" category is being used by 5 percent of schools.

  • Additional racial and ethnic designations, such as "Filipino," are being used by 7 percent of all schools (Figure 2). Use of designations such as these appears to be limited primarily to schools in the West, those in cities and urban fringe areas, and those with 20 percent or more minority enrollments (Table 2).

  • About half of the 27 percent of schools that use classifications other than the five standard federal categories reported that the central district office handles the task of aggregating this information before reporting it to the federal government (Table 4). Many of the remaining schools (35 percent) reported that these students are distributed by the school among the five standard federal categories based on which ones the school considers most appropriate.

  • Public schools typically ask parents or guardians to identify the race and ethnicity of their children. Almost half (44 percent) of all schools ask parents to select one of the five standard federal categories. A much smaller percentage (17 percent) ask parents to select from a set of categories used by the school district. In 12 percent of schools, parents may write in their own specifications when identifying the race or ethnicity of their children (Table 1).

  • Approximately one-quarter (22 percent) of public schools assign students to racial and ethnic classifications based on observation by teachers or administrators (Table 1). In the Northeast, the percentage is double that of the national average (44 percent).

  • In general, most respondents reported that various suggested revisions to the five standard federal categories were not an issue or were only a minor issue in terms of their applicability to students enrolled in their schools (Table 6).