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

How Do Public Schools Collect Information About Students' Race and Ethnicity?

When individuals in the United States complete forms for school enrollment, or applications for jobs, mortgages, college scholarships or other kinds of loans, they are asked to provide information about their racial or ethnic heritage. Typically, they are asked to check one of four racial categories: American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian or Pacific Islander; black; or white. They are also asked to indicate whether or not they are of Hispanic origin. In addition, persons residing in the United States are also asked to check a racial or ethnic category for the decennial census. This information is used by the federal government for a variety of purposes, including monitoring job discrimination and school segregation and determining how to allocate large amounts of federal aid.

The Census Bureau has included a question on race in each census since 1790. The content and format of the question, in addition to the method of data collection, have changed over the years. In 1790, four categories were used to collect data on race-Free White Males, Free White Females, All Other Free Persons, and Slaves. By 1970, nine categories-white, Negro or black, Indian (American), Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean, and Other race- were being used. Beginning with the 1970 census, the Census Bureau also introduced a separate question to collect data on Hispanic origin. By the 1990 census, the race categories had expanded even further to 15 categories-white, black, Indian (American), Eskimo, Aleut, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Asian Indian, Samoan, Guamanian, Other Asian or Pacific Islander, and Other race.

In 1974 the Federal Interagency Committee on Education (FICE) created an Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions to develop specific terms and definitions for designating race and ethnicity. The purpose of this endeavor was to create a system so that a broad range of racial and ethnic data could be collected by federal agencies on a compatible and nonduplicative basis. The efforts of this committee, along with those of numerous other federal offices and commissions, resulted in the categories that are currently being used. In 1977 the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued "Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting," which are contained in Statistical Policy Directive No. 15. For the first time standard categories and definitions were to be used by all federal agencies in both collecting and presenting data on racial and ethnic populations. Directive No. 15 has four racial groups and breaks down ethnicity into "Hispanic origin" and "Not of Hispanic origin." The directive also allows agencies to collect data using a format that combines the racial and ethnic categories, which includes Hispanic in the list of choices. These categories were developed largely to produce data on population groups that historically had suffered discrimination and differential treatment in the United States because of their race or ethnicity (Evinger 1995).

The same five standard federal categories have been used for nearly 20 years. Yet during the time that the standards have been in effect, the country's population has become increasingly diverse, both racially and ethnically. During the 1980s immigration to the United States reached historic levels, and, since the 1965 Immigration Act, the flows have shifted from Europe and Canada to Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia (Harrison and Bennett 1995). Interracial marriages are also beginning to increase the population that is of mixed race or ethnicity ( Evinger 1995). However, the proportion of these marriages is still relatively small (about 2 percent of all marriages in the United States). One consequence of these demographic changes has been concern on the part of data collectors and respondents themselves that the current standard federal categories no longer reflect the diversity of the nation's present population.

In July 1993 OMB announced that it would undertake a comprehensive review of the current categories, including an analysis of the possible effects of suggested changes to the categories on the quality and utility of the resulting data. An integral and essential part of OMB's review is, therefore, the research and testing being conducted by a number of federal agencies of alternative approaches to collecting data on race and ethnicity. For additional information on the OMB review process see OMB's Federal Register notices of June 9, 1994 (59FR29831-35) and August 28, 1995 (60FR44674-93). For information on review efforts by the Census Bureau, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1995) and the Federal Register notice of December 1, 1995 (60FR62010-15).

The survey described in this report is part of this research agenda and provides information on the collection of racial and ethnic data from the perspective of administrative records maintained by schools.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education commissioned the study. The purpose of the survey was to determine by what methods schools classify students' race and ethnicity, what categories they use, and how they report this information to the federal government. The survey was also designed to identify any problems schools are experiencing currently in recording and reporting racial and ethnic information using the current categories.

This report presents the findings from the School Survey on Racial and Ethnic Classifications conducted for NCES by Westat, Inc., a research firm in Rockville, Maryland. The survey was conducted through the NCES Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) during spring 1995. FRSS is a survey system designed to collect small amounts of data with minimal burden placed on respondents and within a relatively short time frame. Short, three-page questionnaires were sent to a nationally representative sample of public elementary and secondary schools. A copy of the questionnaire is included as appendix C. Survey findings are presented for all public schools, and by the following school characteristics:

School enrollment

  • Less than 300
  • 300-499
  • 500-999
  • 1,000 or more

Metropolitan status

  • City
  • Urban fringe
  • Town
  • Rural

Geographic region

  • Northeast
  • Southeast
  • Central
  • West

Percent minority enrollment

  • Less than 5
  • 5-19
  • 20-49
  • 50 or more

Data have been weighted to national estimates of public schools. All comparative statements made in this report have been tested for statistical significance through chi-square tests or t-tests adjusted for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni adjustment and are significant at the .05 level or better. However, not all significant comparisons have been presented, since some were not of substantive importance.