New Way to Count Pupils’ Race

Michael Alison Chandler and Maria Glod, Washington Post, March 23, 2009

Public schools in the Washington region and elsewhere are abandoning their check-one-box approach to gathering information about race and ethnicity in an effort to develop a more accurate portrait of classrooms transformed by immigration and interracial marriage. Next year, they will begin a separate count of students who are of more than one race.

For many families in the District, Montgomery and other local counties that have felt forced to deny a part of their children’s heritage, the new way of counting, mandated by the federal government, represents a long-awaited acknowledgment of their identity: Enrollment forms will allow students to identify as both white and American Indian, for example, or black and Asian. But changing labels will make it harder to monitor progress of groups that have trailed in school, including black and Hispanic students.

Racial and ethnic information, collected when children register for school, can inform school board decisions on reading programs, discipline procedures or admissions policies for gifted classes. The government looks at test scores of minority groups to help determine whether schools make the grade under the No Child Left Behind law. In an increasingly data-driven culture, educators also scrutinize such test scores and enrollment figures to pick programs meant to narrow achievement gaps and equalize academic opportunity.

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“This will make our whole education system look different, and nobody will know whether we are going forward or backward,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California in Los Angeles. Along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups, the Civil Rights Project has raised concerns about how the Education Department will handle the new data.

For decades, students have been counted in one of five racial and ethnic groups: American Indian or Alaska native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Hispanic; non-Hispanic black; or non-Hispanic white. The categories date to the 1960s and were standardized in 1977 to promote affirmative action and monitor discrimination in housing, employment, voting rights and education.

Starting in 2010, under Education Department rules approved two years ago to comply with a government-wide policy shift, parents will be able to check all boxes that apply in a two-step questionnaire with reshaped categories. First, they will indicate whether a student is of Hispanic or Latino origin, or not. (The two terms will encompass one group.) Then they will identify a student as one or more of the following: American Indian or Alaska native; Asian; black or African American; native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; or white.

Government urges change for all students

The change is mandatory for new students, but the government is urging schools to apply it to all. The U.S. Census reached a similar point in 2000, when 6.8 million people, or 2 percent of the population, were counted for the first time as multiracial. The share was 4 percent for people under 18.

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The Fairfax school system, the region’s largest, began counting multiracial students in 1994 at the urging of parents. Today, about 10,000 Fairfax students–or 6 percent of the 169,000–are multiracial. The share is 14 percent at Lake Anne Elementary.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale said racial analysis of test scores has helped uncover groups of struggling students. A few years ago, officials found that black students in Fairfax lagged those in less-affluent Richmond and Norfolk on state tests. But an increasingly diverse school system needs a more sophisticated snapshot, he said.

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Valuable race info to be masked?

Many civil rights advocates agree that it’s necessary to document the growing number of multiracial students, but they say these categories will mask valuable information about race that could be used to analyze educational challenges some groups face. They say it would be more accurate to report the data in detail, with racial and ethnic combinations.

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The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress tried out the new rules. The Civil Rights Project found that the share of Hispanic students grew significantly compared with the share under the old system and that test score averages fluctuated. In eighth-grade reading, the proficiency rate in many states rose for Hispanic and white students and dipped for black students.

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