October 25, 2004
Mesa sixth-grader Valeria Quezada, 11, cannot tell the truth when she takes a standardized test and faces questions about her race and ethnicity.
She is Hispanic and a first-generation U.S. citizen on her father’s side of the family. But her mother is white and non-Hispanic.
The federal No Child Left Behind law does not allow for this scenario.
Under the law, all public schoolchildren in the United States must identify themselves in one of five racial and ethnic categories when they take tests such as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards. Students may not check more than one box, and "multiracial" or "other" are not options.
"I don’t think they should have to choose," said Valeria’s mother, Michelle Quezada, an instructional aide at Zaharis Elementary S chool where Valeria attends with her second- grade brother. "I get frustrated every time I have to mark one of those boxes, and sometimes I don’t mark any box."
The five standard categories, which the federal government created in 1977 and incorporated into the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, are: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian.
President Bush signed the law with the old categories two years after the U.S. Census Bureau updated its system so that families could identify themselves as multiracial. In Arizona, 2.9 percent of residents identified themselves on the 2000 Census as multiracial.
Carlos Vallejo, a professor of multicultural education at Arizona State University, considers it ironic that No Child Left Behind — a law that touts its inclusiveness — leaves behind so many children.
"It tends to advocate onesize-fits-all, which lends itself to people advocating for little boxes that people will be forced to place themselves in," he said.
Teresa Grasser, a teacher at Mesa’s Eisenhower Elementary School who has multiracial children of her own, said the categories often leave her students bewildered. She said they often ask her for advice on which box to check.
Arab-Americans say the five available categories also leave them behind.
"On every form you fill out, you don’t have a choice for someone who is from the Middle East," said Deedra Abboud of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Phoenix. "It makes them feel that they are being taken for granted or ignored. Their identity is not important to the system."
Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the state is only following directions from the federal government and should not be blamed.
"I’m opposed to racial categories on standardized tests," Horne said. "I think students learn as individuals and not as members of a racial or ethnic group."
Unlike Horne, Tempe Union High School District Superintendent Shirley Miles sees value in providing educators with racial data about the children they serve. She agrees with critics, though, who say the federal categories need to be updated.
Miles has a black father and Japanese mother, so she knows firsthand how it feels to not fit neatly into one racial category. She said she always hated filling out forms that listed "other" as an option.
"I would like it to be multiracial," she said. " ‘Other’ makes you feel like you