Students' refusal to state race on forms frustrates officials

SACRAMENTO — About half of the 37 students in teacher Jeanne Kirchofer's Laguna Creek High School classroom, who span nearly every combination of race and ethnicity, have joined the growing number of California studentsn who decline to state a race on official forms and tests.

"We shouldn't be judged by our race," said senior Jessica Mae Belcher, 17, whose roots are African and Cherokee. She prefers "none of the above" because "we're all different, but we're all the same, too."

She likes sharing her classmates' unique American journeys from Mexico, China, Japan, Laos, India, Vietnam, Italy and the Philippines.

"I'm not saying we're going to forget where we came from, but we can all see similarities from different hardships," Belcher said. By eliminating racial categories – and racial consciousness – "we can make racial hatred go away," she said.

Eighteen classmates agreed. "If we were all one race, then there wouldn't be any racism," said Mike Obi, 14, whose roots are Italian and Nigerian. He said his parents declined to state his race on his school registration form.

From 2006 to 2009, the number of Elk Grove Unified School District students whose parents listed their race as "multiple/no response" went from 500 to 6,200 — a twelve-fold jump in just three years, the California Department of Education says. About one of every 10 of the district's students now list race as "multiple/no response."

There's also been a dramatic rise statewide. Data show the number of K-12 students listing their race as "multiple/no response" has jumped 70 percent, from 124,000 in 2006 to 210,000 last year.

But the U.S. Department of Education, which is trying to close the achievement gap between races, is asking school officials to "eyeball" students who decline to state and check a box for them.

"We know and the feds know you can't force someone to fill out a form. So what the feds have actually said is to more strongly encourage them to self-identify," said Keric Ashley, the state Education Department's director of data management. "If all those efforts fail and the parents refuse, the feds say school officials should observe and report a race."

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to ensure students of all races achieve proficiency in English and math by 2014. So the agency is pressing schools to identify all students by race in 2010-11 or face penalties.

According to the Federal Register, there will no longer be a "no race and/or ethnicity unknown" category and schools will use "observer identification" when a parent or guardian refuses to identify race.

But California refuses to force schools to rely on "third-party observation" for students who decline to state, Ashley said. "We're allowing them to report it's intentionally left blank."

Monitoring the progress of historically underserved students to ensure they're getting the same education and achieving at the same level as white and Asian students makes sense, Ashley said.

"But you can probably do that without picking a fight over 'decline to state,' " especially when that category's growing, he said.

A lively debate bubbled up in the Laguna Creek class last week. Daniel White, 15, designates African American.

"I claim my heritage. We come from Africa, we're spiritual people," White said. Even if racial categories are eliminated, "you've still got the color" issue.

If no one identified by race, "a new form of racism would come about – it would go by what the person looks like," said Chancellor Adams, 15, who identifies as a white "Elk Grovian."

Junior Kevin Valone – who said he's three-quarters Caucasian and one-quarter Filipino – reflected the dilemma facing the class's many mixed-race students when pressured to choose.

"Race is part of your uniqueness and individuality," said Valone, 17, who's also Italian and Japanese. "I look more Filipino. Most of the time for tests I put Filipino to identify with a minority. For unimportant surveys, I put biracial or mixed."

Senior Candice Renkin, 17, – who identifies herself as white/European American – said it's important to close the achievement gap. "By ignoring racial categories, it makes the problem worse because people can be racist and there's no way to quantify it."

A dozen classmates said they'd rather identify as "American" on tests.

Freshman Felicia Forte, 14, traces her roots to France, Africa and Jamaica. "In the end, we're all American," she said. "Race doesn't matter. Especially on a test, it makes us feel like they're going to categorize us or stereotype us."

"Usually I bubble in 'Mexican,' but I don't speak Spanish, so I feel weird about identifying as Mexican," said Angellinda Gonzalez, 15. "But I'm still proud of my culture. We really shouldn't judge people because they are a different race."

Kirchofer said that as one in three babies born in Sacramento are multiracial, more students "are grappling with this … there are always questions like, 'What do I fill in? What if I'm two?' "

Last year, when the school staged "heritage rallies" to pump up students of different races for state achievement tests, "there was some resentment," Kirchofer said. "Some would ask, 'Where do I go?' "

At a meeting of the school's Concerned African American Parents association, vice president John W. Taylor called the open dialogue "a courageous conversation going on at Laguna Creek."

A half-dozen parents at the meeting said they check off "other" for their children on forms because the old racial categories no longer reflect who they are.

The growing reluctance to identify by a single race is reflected in national SAT scores.

The number of students declining to state fell from 12 percent in 1999 to 4 percent in 2009, partly because students who skip the race/ethnicity question are now redirected back to it. But the number checking "other" has gone up 25 percent, said College Board spokeswoman Kathleen Fineout Steinberg.

California community college students skipping the race question jumped 44 percent, from 114,000 in 2005 to 164,000 in 2008. Those choosing "other" increased slightly, going from 28,920 to 30,467.

The University of California shows a 64 percent jump in the number of California applicants declining to state.

"This question is always optional," said Susan Wilbur, director of undergraduate admissions. "Increasingly, students are multiethnic and it may simply be because they're multiethnic they felt they didn't fit in any particular box."

Doug Craig, who's been principal at Laguna Creek for 10 years, appreciates the students' desire to be judged on their merits, not their race.

"I'd love to look at individual kids and leave it at that, but we wouldn't even know there was an achievement gap if we didn't measure our kids," he said. "There must be a systemic reason and we need to figure out what causes it and how to fix it."