Sparse racial categories blur Texas' school data
By Jennifr Radcliffe
When Texas releases its list today of schools that met the minimal academic standards under the No Child Left Behind Act, it's intended to be proof that all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, learned what they were supposed to.
But though the law asks each state to make sure that all students are making academic gains, Texas pays attention to fewer student groups than almost every other state in the country.
Only Texas and Arkansas track just three racial subgroups — white, black and Hispanic — when they decide which schools made the required "adequate yearly progress."
Despite its growing diversity, Texas doesn't count its 133,000 Asian students or 14,300 American Indians as separate student subgroups, even though it collects and records scores for those students. The state also doesn't offer a "multiracial" category to the tens of thousands of students who don't neatly fit into one of the five racial or ethnic boxes on registration forms.
Instead, the test scores of students from those less prominent groups get lumped in with their schools' entire student body for accountability purposes. Some experts say the discrepancies raise questions about the data's usefulness.
"The statistics that are going to be collected about performance vis-á-vis racial categories are going to be nonsense," said Timothy McGettigan, a sociology professor at Colorado State University at Pueblo. "The idea is that you would have a policy that's titled No Child Left Behind but that you create a bunch of categories in which enormous amounts of children in this melting pot cannot be recognized."
What's more: If parents in Texas — and many other states — opt to check more than one race on school-registration forms, school employees say they've been instructed to erase one of the choices. If the parent leaves the question blank, school administrators say they will pick the child's race.
No easy answer
That leaves the parents of 3-year-old Houstonian Jaxson Crawford with a dilemma when they fill out a registration form in the next few years.
Jaxson's father is black. His mother is Puerto Rican and West Indian. Though none of the boxes reflect their son's race, his parents know that if they decline to pick one, the choice will be made for them.
"That's so unfair, especially for the type of city we live in, for them to be so behind the times," mother Monique DeSant-Crawford said.
Whether Jaxson and students like him are deemed black or Hispanic could potentially impact whether their schools have enough students in that category to be deemed statistically significant.
Theoretically, administrators also could make calculated decisions about which race a biracial child is to help sway their school's scores.
For instance, a school might designate a child with one black parent as black if they think he's likely to do well academically, thereby boosting the overall performance of the school's black population. On the other hand, if there are too few black students at the school to be counted as a subgroup, the school might opt to identify a low-performing mixed-raced child as black.
"So much is riding on these numbers," said Jenifer Bratter, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University. "This could possibly allow school administrators to decide, 'Here's someone we can put in any box we want.' ... I think if it's something school administrators are doing without the knowledge of the parents, then it does raise all these questions."
Bratter and other advocates also worry that forcing children to pick between their parents' races marginalizes a child.
"These are very formative years for kids. In terms of supporting the overall well-being of the child, it's also important to realize their identities are valid," she said.
Kayci Baldwin, a 14-year-old from New Jersey who spent part of the summer studying at Texas A&M University, said she's struggled with the decision for years. Schools in New Jersey also don't provide a multiracial option — leaving Baldwin, whose mother is white and father is black, with no accurate choice.
"It's definitely upsetting," said Baldwin, president of Teen Project RACE, a national group that advocates for multiracial children. "I'm either considered Caucasian, African-American or other. Either way, it's incorrect. They might as well have said I'm Asian.
"I completely support the idea of the No Child Left Behind Act, but multiracial children are either overlooked completely or misclassified. We're looked at as insignificant."
When the multiracial option debuted on the U.S. Census in 2000, nearly 7 million people nationally — including more than half a million Texans — selected the category. Nationally, more than 40 percent of mixed-race people are younger than 18, according to the census.
California resident Susan Graham, who helped form Project RACE more than a decade ago, has advocated for "multiracial" categories on school forms in a number of states. So far, Georgia and Illinois are among the roughly 10 states that track multiracial children or children of "other" ethnicities for federal accountability.
Just last week, the U.S. Department of Education published a proposal in the Federal Register that would align school data collection more closely with U.S. Census reporting. If approved, schools would start breaking race and ethnicity into two questions.
Parents would first be asked whether a student is Hispanic.
Then they'd be asked to select one or more races from five categories: white; Asian; native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; American Indian or Alaska Native; and black or African-American.
Allowing parents to mark multiple races is a much-needed update, experts said.
"It's really the next important step we need to take," McGettigan said. "Especially in the education field, we need to be smarter about this."
But U.S. and Texas officials said that though the change could force states to revamp how they collect some student data, it wouldn't affect what categories they count for state and federal accountability measures.
"We let the state determine that," said Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.
Whether Texas falls more in line with the other 49 states — which track an average of 5.3 racial categories for NCLB — is "a choice Texas has to make," Colby said.
So far, Texas has set the bar high for which groups it will include for accountability purposes. Officials said a group must make up 10 percent of the student population before they will add it. Blacks are the smallest subgroup counted, comprising 14 percent of the student population in 2004-05.
State officials said they devised their accountability system in the mid-1990s to help identify and track student populations with double-digit achievement gaps.
State leaders have met several times in the past decade to consider whether other subgroups should be added, but they've decided against making changes so far. Asians and Native Americans don't lag behind whites academically as much as other minorities, and including them in the accountability system could adversely affect urban districts, they said.
The state's 10 largest school districts already have to clear an average of 34 hurdles (of a possible 36) to earn an "acceptable" rating from the state. Because of their lack of diversity, Texas' 422 rural districts have to meet just 13 standards on average, said Criss Cloudt, associate commissioner of accountability and data quality for the Texas Education Agency.
Only nine of Texas' roughly 1,040 school districts, including Alief, Fort Bend and Stafford Municipal, would have enough Asian students to count in their districtwide ratings, if the state were to include the category. At least five charter schools, as well as individual campuses in other districts, also would be affected by the change, Cloudt said.
Two districts — Hubbard and Big Sandy — have enough Native Americans, she said.
"It's a balance when you're trying to adopt policy decisions that impact the system the way you want to impact it, yet now you have (about a dozen) school districts in the state that feel like the system is unfair to them because they have six more hurdles that anyone else has," Cloudt said. "We're trying to put a system in place where the rules ... impact a significant number of districts."
At some schools in the Houston area, however, Asians far outnumber whites. Hastings High School in Alief, for instance, had 619 Asian students last year and just 295 whites, according to state records.
River Oaks Elementary in Houston, reported 91 Asians in 2005, compared with 64 blacks.
In both cases, the performance of the smaller group factored into accountability ratings, but Asian students didn't.
Because these groups are ignored by Texas' state and federal accountability systems, some advocates said it's tough to know whether these students are performing as well as their peers and whether schools are doing everything they can to reach them.
"Those narrow categories really don't tell the full story," said Tammy Johnson, race and public policy director for the nonprofit Applied Research Center in Oakland. "There's a lot of smoke and mirrors going on. That's why teasing out those numbers is really important."
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