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Key Changes Would Alter The Government's Massive Survey On Schools And Civil Rights

Sara Wong for NPR

The Department of Education has proposed several key changes to its massive survey that collects data from the nation's public schools on a wide range of civil rights issues.

Among the changes, the 2019-2020 version of the Civil Rights Data Collection would remove questions that focus on preschool and school finance. The proposals would also add in more questions about sexual assault and bullying based on religion.

The CRDC, as it's known, is a massive trove of self-reported information published every two years by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. The data collected is used by the Department, education researchers, policymakers and scholars from many fields. Every public school in the country is required to participate, and the government gets data from nearly all of them: more than 96,000 in 2015-16, from around 17,000 school districts.

The proposals for the upcoming survey, which will gather data from this school year, are still under review. The public comment period ends Nov. 18, and the department said the earliest that these proposals could go into effect is 2020.

Here are some of the proposed changes.

What's being added

While the CRDC previously compiled information about the number of sexual assaults reported at schools, it didn't distinguish whether those incidents were committed by students or school staff. In addition to collecting that information, the new survey would also track whether a staff member was found responsible, and whether they were reassigned, dismissed or allowed to retire "prior to final discipline or termination."

The Department says its reason for adding questions on this topic is "to ensure it has sufficient data to address rape or attempted rape, and sexual assault cases."

The CRDC also already records allegations of bullying and harassment on the basis of religion, but this year's proposed change would break down religiously based bullying into 14 different subgroups, the same ones listed in the FBI's hate crime data collection handbook.

The Department noted that in the 2015-16 data collection, about 8 percent of reported bullying and harassment was based on religion. Breaking down that bullying by religion "could potentially allow OCR to provide technical assistance where there are patterns of conduct, especially where ethnic or ancestral harassment is combined with directed religious discrimination," the Department said in a statement.

What could go away

The OCR proposed retiring over half the survey questions around early childhood education, including the costs of public preschool, the amount of time students spend in preschool, and information about the student populations served. The change would also remove the requirement that respondents break down preschool enrollment by race.

Some researchers worry that this will prevent them from tracking racial disparities in areas like school discipline. The 2013-14 CRDC data, for example, found that black preschool students received one or more out-of-school suspensions at 3.6 times the rate of their white counterparts.

Under the proposed new survey, schools would still provide information about the racial makeup of pre-K students who get suspended, but it would no longer be possible for researchers to see whether that percentage is proportional to the number of students enrolled.

In published comments, the Education Department said this change and others stem from a desire to reduce the paperwork burden on schools and school districts around the country. A 2014 report commissioned to improve the CRDC as a whole, noted that in previous data collections, districts had experienced "unacceptable levels of reporting burden."

(Officials at the Department declined to be interviewed for this story because the proposals are still subject to change.)

Some advocates and researchers have sharply criticized the proposal to remove these questions.

Ary Amerikaner, the vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research at the Education Trust, said eliminating the ability to track suspension data is a huge loss. She noted that her group opposes any form of suspensions for preschoolers, and said the fact that those suspensions disproportionately affect black students is "extremely problematic."

The government is also proposing to remove the school-finance portion of its data set. The CRDC previously required schools to report the number of full-time personnel, their salaries and the amount of non-personnel expenses.

The Department says the move is in response to concerns from schools and districts about the difficulty of reporting such data and about the accuracy of self-reported data.

Amerikaner worries about these changes, too. It matters, she said, because CRDC data can show how funds are distributed within a district, and whether certain schools are receiving disproportionately less funding. "It would be a huge loss for us, as advocates and researchers, if they went away," she said.

As part of its efforts to reduce the paperwork burden on schools, the OCR also wants to stop tracking the number of first- and second-year teachers in classrooms, as well as information about teacher absenteeism. This, too, raises concerns from some researchers that a key data point, that can highlight inequities in the quality of teaching that students receive, would be eliminated.

What's staying the same

One thing the OCR hasn't proposed changing is a question about school-related shootings that, an NPR investigation found last year, was wildly inaccurate. Our reporting found that more than two thirds of the "incidents" that schools reported as shootings in the 2015-16 CRDC never happened. The errors stemmed from several reasons, including confusion about the phrasing of some questions, the definition of a shooting-related incident, and the fact that schools are required to report similar information to other government agencies.

Alexis Marshall is an intern on NPR's Education Desk.

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Alexis Marshall