Multiracial Pupils to Be Counted in A New Way

By Michael Alison Chandler and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, 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.

Under the new policy, the count of Hispanic students is expected to grow as the non-Hispanic black and white counts diminish. Many will fall into a new group called "two or more races." In schools with diverse populations, especially in such immigrant destinations as the Washington region, there are likely to be notable demographic shifts, at least on paper. That could shake up how educational challenges are measured and reroute funding for reforms.

"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.

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.

The Montgomery County school system and others in Maryland already have begun asking families for updated racial and ethnic information.

In the Fairfax County community of Reston, Lake Anne Elementary School reflects the evolution of a country now led by a president born to a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father. Julian Bryant, a second-grader at Lake Anne, has a white mother and black father. Elena Castrence, also in second grade, inherited her father's Filipino traditions along with those of her white mother. And Giselle Walter, in third grade, claims Latino, Russian and Irish heritage.

"I want my kids to know they are biracial," said Julian's mother, Shelley Bryant. "We say, 'You are a mixture.' We put up his hands and say, 'See? Daddy is a little darker. Mommy is a little lighter. We took a mixture of Mommy and Daddy and made you.' "

How such students have been counted varies from place to place. Many Virginia schools have allowed parents to select "other." But in Maryland and the District, families like the Bryants until now have been forced to choose black or white.

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