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AB 1281 Brings Outdated Racial And Ethnic Data Collection Practices Up To Current Standards

Schools in the United States have historically reflected the classification of students’ race and ethnicity based on the categories utilized by the federal government. Those classifications have been set in many different ways over the years as demographic changes have occurred and people’s nomenclature for themselves or their group(s) have been updated by the U. S. Census Bureau, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the U. S. Department of Education.


States, school districts, and local schools have been able to maintain their unique particular demographics by adding, subtracting, or changing wording of their school forms, including enrollment, test, and other forms that ask for racial and/or ethnic data. For example, updates have been made over the years to change colored to Negro then to African American or Black; Oriental has become Asian with sub-categories; Hispanic or Latino is an ethnic, not racial category on the census; and the ”n” has been dropped from Alaskan Native to become Alaska Native.

In our fluid society of immigration and intermarriage, it is our responsibility to properly reflect the entire heritage of our population. Some school districts in California list 20 or more races and ethnicities on forms, but limit students to choosing only one.

Interracial families recognized in the 1980s that the full heritage of their biracial and multiracial children was not reflected in a “check one” society and began to advocate for a more expanded way to accommodate them on forms. Parents wanted the opportunity to describe their children’s full heritage. In the 1990s, change began to come about on the state and local school levels. States began adding the term multiracial to school forms via legislation or by administrative mandate. Currently in 2009, ten states formally carry the term multiracial on school and other forms, and every day individual schools and districts add the correct, updated terminology to their forms. California has not adopted the practice on a statewide basis, although many individual districts have.

In 2000, the ability to check more than one race was an option for the first time in the history of the U.S. Decennial Census. In the United States, 7.3 million or 2.4 percent reported themselves and/or their children as more than one race and 42 percent of those who chose more than one race were under the age of 18. The State of California currently has the largest population of people among the 50 states that checked more than one race, or almost double the national average. Demographers expect these numbers to increase dramatically and quickly in the future.

In August 2008, the U.S. Department of Education and National Forum on Education Statistics released its Final Guidance to the states as a guide to implementing the new federal race and ethnicity categories, as a minimum guide for states. In general, data that are more accurate will result from the new guidelines as states offer the ability to check more than one race for biracial and multiracial students.

This is the ideal time to close the gap in disparity for biracial and multiracial students due to coinciding with the changes in federal guidelines.

AB 1281 brings outdated racial and ethnic data collection practices into conformity with newly outlined federal data standards in public elementary and secondary schools in the state. Specifically, the bill ensures that a public elementary and secondary school:

  • Provides and collects forms that include accurate and appropriate multiple racial and ethnic classifications, ensuring the inclusion of biracial and multiracial children.
  • Allows respondents the option to select one or more racial designations pursuant to guidelines of the United States Department of Education with the following written instructions: Choose one; if you consider yourself biracial or multiracial choose two or more.
  • Reports data for stand alone aggregate numbers and those that are in combination with dual or multiple ethnic or racial designations.
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  • Complies with civil rights monitoring and enforcement in accordance with state and/or federal mandates.
  • Complies as early as reasonably feasible when updating applicable forms, software, hardware, or information, but in no event later than the commencement of the fall semester of the 2010-11 academic year.

AB 1281 will provide for California’s biracial and multiracial schoolchildren:

  • A place to see themselves on forms with the dignified, clear, and consistent terminology of biracial or multiracial.
  • More acceptance in the largest and most diverse state in the country.
  • Continued civil rights monitoring and enforcement.
  • To be a part of the state with the most progressive nomenclature for racial and ethnic data in the country.
  • The understanding that respect for individual dignity should guide the collection of personal data.
  • Be able to see acceptance of their entire heritage at school, where children often first understand that they are being counted, knowing that the State of California is counting them accurately and reflecting the diversity of their families.

Anthony Portantino

Assemblymember Anthony Portantino was elected to serve the 44th Assembly District in November, 2006. Anthony currently serves as the Chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education and is a member of the Transportation, Government Organization and Public Safety Standing Committees. He is also a member of the Assembly Select Committees on the Preservation of the California’s Entertainment Industry, Foster Care, and Community Colleges.

Reprinted with permission from the California Progress Report.