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

Summary and Conclusions

Respondents were asked to comment on any additional issues regarding racial and ethnic classifications that they felt were significant for their schools. Of the 926 school personnel who completed questionnaires, about 15 percent provided some written comments.

Many of these comments reiterated some of the information already included elsewhere in the questionnaire. For example, several respondents commented on the need for a multiracial, biracial, or multinational category. Others indicated that they felt it would be important to allow individuals either to mark a category that meets their identity or to let them write in their own specific racial or ethnic designation, with no categories provided. About 10 percent of the comments implied that no changes are warranted. These comments often were from respondents who acknowledged that because of the homogeneity of the population at their particular schools, they were not experiencing any problems with the current standards. Finally, a slightly higher number of comments were from individuals who expressed displeasure with the entire process of collecting data on race and ethnicity and suggested eliminating this system of identifying and categorizing this population characteristic entirely.

The federal government collects racial and ethnic data for a variety of purposes. The most widely known collection is in the decennial census. Racial and ethnic categories are also found on many forms individuals are asked to complete, including school enrollment forms. Disparities among racial and ethnic groups in social and economic status, credit experience, educational attainment, health outcomes, and availability of health services, to name a few areas, can reveal underlying civil rights problems. For example, the OCR in the Department of Education uses racial and ethnic data to detect possible racial discrimination in ability grouping, discipline, athletics, financial aid, and programs for special populations.

According to recent censuses, the U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse primarily as a result of immigration from all parts of the world. The federal government has therefore undertaken the task of reviewing and possibly modifying the way racial and ethnic data are collected and reported. Some members of the public are even questioning the usefulness of these data and whether it is reasonable for the government to collect racial and ethnic information.

In response to OMB's June 1994 Federal Register notice, a large number of comments came from parents of multiracial children who are dissatisfied with selecting one racial category when registering their children in school. This survey does not suggest that such complaints are widespread at the local level, or that the majority of public schools have seen the need to modify the way they collect data on students' race and ethnicity. While most schools did not report that making particular changes to the current categories would be applicable to a significant number of students in their schools, some changes have been initiated to enable parents either to use an "other" category or to write in their own designations.

The majority of public schools collect racial and ethnic data when students initially register at any school in the district. Some of these schools also update this information whenever students change schools in the district.

About three-quarters of public schools leave it up to parents or guardians to identify the race and ethnicity of their children, typically giving parents and guardians the opportunity to select standard categories but also use an "other" category with space for providing a specific designation; another 5 percent use an "other" category without space for specification. Five percent of schools indicated that they use a general "multiracial" category. When categories such as "other" or "multiracial" are used, schools typically aggregate these data into the one of the five standard federal categories that is deemed most appropriate by school staff before reporting the information to the federal government. However, in about half of the schools that use classifications other than those in Directive No. 15, the central district office is responsible for aggregating and submitting these data to the federal government. When respondents were presented with a list of suggested changes to the current federal categories for race and ethnicity, a small percentage (11 percent or less) of them indicated that any of the changes had been, or soon would be, made at their schools. Another small percentage indicated that any of these issues were significant in terms of their applicability to students enrolled at their schools (3- 12 percent). These data are corroborated by the finding that, of the 31 percent of schools reporting that they could estimate the number of students not accurately described by the five standard categories, 84 percent estimated that this was the case for fewer than 5 percent of their student population.

This survey was designed by OCR and NCES to be part of the research associated with OMB's review of Directive No. 15. The results of the survey have provided important data on this complex issue from the perspective of public schools, which represent one of the largest groups of institutions required to collect data on the race and ethnicity of the U.S. population. As such, schools would bear the considerable cost and burden of incorporating any changes to the categories should they be adopted by OMB. A followup state-level survey will provide additional information about the existence of any state laws, regulations, or guidelines concerning collecting information about the race and ethnicity of students. Together, the two surveys should provide valuable input to OMB about administrative record issues surrounding the collection of race and ethnicity information in schools.