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

To What Extent Are Public Schools Identifying Race and Ethnicity With Categories Other Than the Five Standard Categories Used by the Federal Government?

Schools were asked to report what other categories they use to classify the race or ethnicity of students. Respondents could check any of six possible alternative classifications, or specifically indicate that the school uses no additional categories. Approximately three-quarters of the nation's public schools specified that they use only the five standard federal categories to identify students' race and ethnicity (Figure 2). Fifteen percent of all schools reported using an "other" or "undesignated" category-10 percent use this classification and provide space for identifying a specific racial or ethnic group, while 5 percent use it without space for specification. A general "multiracial" category is reportedly being used by 5 percent of all schools, while 7 percent of schools are using additional racial and ethnic designations, such as "Filipino." Specific combinations of the five standard federal categories, such as "black/ white," or an "unknown" category are rarely used by schools to classify students' race and ethnicity (2 percent of schools). Limiting the classification of racial and ethnic data to the five standard federal categories also appears to vary somewhat by certain school characteristics (Figure 3). Schools in the Northeast are more likely than those in other regions of the country to use only the standard federal categories, and schools in rural areas are more likely than those in cities and urban fringe areas to do so. Schools with less than 5 percent minority enrollment are also more likely than those with 20 percent or more to restrict the designations they use to the five standard federal categories, although 63 percent of schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment also reported that they use no additional classifications. Finally, very small schools (less than 300 students) are more likely to adhere to the five standard federal categories than those with enrollments of 500 students or more. However, it must be noted that use of only the five standard categories to classify racial and ethnic data does not necessarily depend on the data collection procedure used by the school. For example, schools might use only these categories but have teachers do the assigning, or they may have parents write in the information but then fit the data into the standard categories.

Seven percent of schools reported using additional racial or ethnic designations (Table 2). However, use of additional categories appears to be more prevalent in schools in the West, schools with 1,000 or more students, those in cities and urban fringe areas, and those with 20 percent or more minority enrollments.

Adding a separate Filipino category was most frequently mentioned by schools surveyed, although this only applied to 4 percent of all schools (Table 3). Some schools also reported breaking down the Asian and Pacific Islander category into two separate categories. Other categories mentioned by schools were Middle Eastern and various specific Asian nationalities, such as Chinese and Japanese, but each was reported by less than 1 percent of all schools.