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Blacks Will Be Undercounted Under New Proposal, Civil Rights Groups Say

Blacks Will Be Undercounted Under New Proposal, Civil Rights Groups Say
By Kenneth J. Cooper

Civil rights groups are opposing the U.S. Department of Education’s plan to change the way colleges and K-12 schools have collected information about the race and ethnicity of their students for the past four decades. Higher education groups, though, have for the most part gone along with the proposal.

The changes, civil rights groups charge, would make it appear that there are more Hispanics and fewer African-Americans and Whites enrolled. The groups foresee difficulties tracking the academic achievement of minorities and independently monitoring compliance with civil rights laws.

The Education Department says its draft plan, released in August to comply with governmentwide rules adopted in 1997, will provide a more accurate count of the number of Hispanics. The new system will also tally mixed-race students for the first time. The department says its Office for Civil Rights will have access to sufficient information to enforce anti-discrimination laws.

Under current rules, colleges and schools identify how many of their students fall into one of five categories: Black, White, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American/Alaska Native. That information is then conveyed to the department
each year.

The proposed changes, to be implemented by 2009, would allow students to first identify themselves as either Hispanic/Latino or not. Only non-Hispanics would then check as many as five races that are applicable. Pacific Islanders would shift into a new category, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, separating them from Asians.

How the racial-ethnic breakdown is reported to the department would change in one way. Educational institutions would total how many non-Hispanics checked more than one box and put them into a new category, “Two or more races.”

Which races those students identify would not be reported because, the department says, separate accounting of all the possible combinations would burden institutions.

Department officials expect the separate question about being Hispanic/Latino will result in “more complete reporting” of members of that growing population because they’ve historically been the ones most likely not to identify themselves on forms.

But the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University predicts Hispanics would be “overcounted.” The project analyzed the racial-ethnic identification of students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2003, when both the current method and the department’s proposed one were used to collect background information. One finding: Under the department’s proposed approach, the number of Hispanics appeared to at least double in 34 states.

Because Black Hispanics or mixed-race students with some Black ancestry were not counted as African-Americans, the number of Black fourth-graders appeared 4 percentage points lower nationally. For similar reasons, there appeared to be 11 percent fewer White fourth-graders.

“Society will look very different — less Black, more Latin, much more multiracial,” says Dr. Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project. “We think it just renders it very difficult, if not impossible, to know what is going on in our schools and colleges racially.”

Groups joining the Civil Rights Project in criticizing the department plan include the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The Asian American Justice Center has made similar criticisms although that organization supports the separation of Asians and Pacific Islanders, because the latter group has lower achievement levels and different educational concerns.

The Hispanic Association of Colleges and University also opposes the proposed changes, even though Hispanic numbers would apparently rise. “There could be an increase in the number of Hispanics, but it could be inaccurate,” says Dr. Antonio R. Flores, HACU’s president.

Terry M. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, says a higher count of Hispanic college students could increase the number of Hispanic-serving institutions, which are defined by the Education Department as those with full-time enrollments that are at least 25 percent Hispanic.

Overall, ACE believes the new system would be more accurate. “We’ve long known that the current federal numbers regarding racial and ethnic participation in higher education are inaccurate,” Hartle says. “We’re making an improvement over where we’ve been in the past, but it’s not perfect.”

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, the only national higher education group to file comment with the department on the proposed changes, endorsed them. Critics have called for a review by academic experts and congressional committees before the department issues final guidelines.

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