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Research to Improve Data on Race and Ethnicity


The United States Census Bureau has a long history of conducting research to improve questions and data on race and ethnicity. Since the first census in 1790, the Census Bureau has collected information on race/ethnicity and the census form has reflected changes in society and shifts that have occurred in the way the Census Bureau classifies race and ethnicity. Since the 1970s, the Census Bureau has conducted content tests to research and improve the design and function of different questions, including questions on race and ethnicity. Today, the Census Bureau collects race and ethnic data following U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidelines, and these data are based upon self-identification.

One challenge we currently face is how Americans view “race” and “ethnicity” differently than in decades past. In our diverse society, a growing number of people find the current race and ethnic categories confusing, or they wish to see their own specific group reflected on the census questionnaire. Our research has found that over time, there have been a growing number of people who do not identify with any of the official OMB race categories, and this means that an increasing number of respondents have been racially classified as “Some Other Race.” In fact, in 2000 and in 2010, the Some Other Race (SOR) population, which was intended to be a small residual category, was the third largest race group. This was primarily due to reporting by Hispanics, who make up the overwhelming majority of those classified as SOR, not identifying with any of the OMB race categories. In addition, segments of other populations, such as Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern or North African populations, did not identify with any of the OMB race categories and identified as SOR.

Research on Race and Ethnicity - 2010 Census Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE) and the 2015 National Content Test (NCT)

Taking note of this, over the past decade, Census Bureau researchers have been exploring different strategies for improving respondent understanding of the questions we ask, as well as improving the accuracy of the resulting data we produce on race and ethnicity. This research began in 2008, with the design of the 2010 Census Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE) Research on Race and Hispanic Origin, which at the time was the most comprehensive research effort on race and Hispanic origin ever undertaken by the Census Bureau. In 2012, the AQE research was completed, and the results demonstrated promising strategies that combined race and ethnicity into one question and addressed challenges and complexities of race and Hispanic origin measurement and reporting.

While the 2010 AQE research set the foundation, we still needed additional empirical research to test prospective question designs for the content of the 2020 Census, particularly with the new emphasis on using web-based designs for data collection. Thus, throughout 2014 and 2015, our Census Bureau research team shared and discussed plans for testing different question designs, and participated in numerous public dialogues about the research plans to obtain community feedback. The ultimate goal of this research would be to improve the question design and data quality for the 2020 Census, while addressing community concerns that we have heard over the past several years, including the call for more detailed, disaggregated data for our diverse American experiences as German, Mexican, Korean, Jamaican, and myriad other identities. This research effort culminated into the 2015 National Content Test (NCT), which was conducted to explore ways to improve our race/ethnicity questions, to better measure and represent our nation's myriad racial/ethnic identities, and build upon extensive research on race and ethnicity previously conducted by the Census Bureau.

Working with OMB and Federal Statistical Agencies

Simultaneously, over the past few years, Census Bureau researchers have been working with colleagues from other Federal statistical agencies and OMB on a Federal Interagency Working Group (IWG) for Research on Race and Ethnicity. Under the guidance of OMB, which prescribes and maintains the Federal standards for data on race and ethnicity, the IWG has been examining OMB’s 1997 Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity and exploring different options for improving Federal data on race and ethnicity. The Census Bureau’s 2015 NCT research on race and ethnicity provided a rich foundation for the IWG's explorations. In September 2016, OMB issued a Federal Register Notice announcing to the public their intentions to review particular components of the 1997 standard, including a) the use of separate questions to measure race and ethnicity and question phrasing; b) the classification of a Middle Eastern and North African group and reporting category; c) the description of the intended use of minimum reporting categories; and d) terminology used for race and ethnicity classifications. We continue working with OMB and their Federal Interagency Working Group on these issues. This is especially important work to improve statistics that inform what we know about our nation’s people, places, and economy, and how we are growing and changing.

Results from 2015 NCT Research

In October 2016, we began discussing the 2015 NCT’s preliminarily results on race and ethnicity with the public. The 2015 NCT results built upon the 2010 AQE results, showing no changes to distributions for major groups; obtaining decreased reporting of “Some Other Race;” achieving lower item nonresponse for the combined race/ethnicity question than for the separate race and ethnicity questions; and gaining higher overall consistency of race/ethnicity reporting for Hispanics. The 2015 NCT also yielded a very important improvement on the 2010 AQE research –  by obtaining the same or higher levels of detailed reporting across all groups, including for Hispanics and Asians, through the use of an innovative combined question with detailed checkboxes design.

Further, our NCT research explored ways to collect and tabulate data for respondents of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) heritage. During the 1990s, as part of the public comment process for the 1997 OMB Standards, OMB received a number of requests to add an ethnicity category for Arabs and Middle Easterners to the minimum collection standards, but OMB encouraged further research on how to collect and improve data on this population. The 2010 AQE was part of the research effort on how to collect and improve data for the MENA population, as findings from AQE focus groups revealed that a number of MENA participants did not see themselves in the current race and ethnicity response categories, and focus group participants often recommended a separate Middle Eastern, North African, or Arab category. The Census Bureau also conducted extensive outreach with MENA community leaders and experts over the past several years about the development of a MENA category. In response to a December 2014 Federal Register Notice about the plans for the 2015 NCT, the Census Bureau received thousands of public comments from the MENA community supporting the testing of a MENA category. These sentiments were echoed during a May 2015 Census Bureau Forum on Ethnic Groups from the Middle East and North Africa, where over 30 MENA experts were updated on the 2015 NCT plans for testing a MENA category and invitees shared their feedback on a potential MENA category. The experts provided feedback on the term “Middle Eastern or North African,” as well as the Census Bureau’s working classification of MENA and potential tabulations of MENA responses to the question(s) on race and ethnicity in the 2020 Census. These findings and ongoing dialogues with stakeholders led to the testing of a separate Middle Eastern or North African category in the 2015 NCT. The NCT research findings show that the use of a distinct MENA category elicits higher quality data; and people who identify as MENA use the MENA category when it is available, whereas they have trouble identifying as only MENA when no category is available.

Based on the results of the 2015 NCT research, the Census Bureau’s 2018 End-to-End Test will a) employ the successful question format design which uses a combined question with detailed checkboxes design and b) include a dedicated “Middle Eastern or North African” response category. The Census Bureau is recommending a separate response category for MENA respondents, where any MENA responses would be aggregated to the White category following the current OMB Standards. However, it will ultimately be up to OMB to determine if the MENA category will be a minimum reporting category that is distinct from the White category. OMB is currently conducting a review of these standards, and it will be OMB’s decision as to whether or not MENA will become a new minimum reporting category outside of the White category.

Outreach, Engagement, and Next Steps

Coinciding with this extensive research over the past decade, the Census Bureau continues ongoing engagement and discussions about race and ethnicity with OMB Federal statistical agencies and many stakeholder groups. Our research team reached out to many stakeholders to make them aware of the 2010 AQE and 2015 NCT research plans, discussed their questions and obtain their feedback, and update them on the research results and future work. The Census Bureau will continue to participate as a member of the OMB’S Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity, which is working to examine the 1997 Standards and to explore different options for improving Federal data on race and ethnicity. Results from the 2015 NCT, public feedback on the OMB Federal Register Notices, and other data sources will be used to inform the IWG recommendations to OMB regarding the 1997 Standards.

In early 2017, we plan to release final results from the 2015 NCT, and we will continue to meet with stakeholders about this important research and discuss the results with them and receive feedback as we develop our final recommendations for the 2020 Census content on race and ethnicity. In the summer of 2017, we will share our recommendations with the public as we prepare to make final decisions on the 2020 Census content that we must submit to Congress in April 2018. This research, collaboration, outreach, and engagement will help ensure that the 2020 Census provides the highest-quality statistics about our nation’s diverse population.

Related Information

Director's Blog: 2015 National Content Test Results Released This Week
This week, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 2015 National Content Test Race and Ethnicity Analysis Report for the 2020 Census.

2015 National Content Test: Race and Ethnicity Analysis Report
This report presents findings on research conducted to assess optimal design elements that could be used in question(s) on race/ethnicity.

Federal Register Notice: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity
Review and Possible Revision of OMB's Statistical Policy Directive on Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity.

Random Samplings Blog: Measuring Race And Ethnicity Across The Decades: 1790-2010
Over the years, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected information on race and ethnicity.

Working Paper
Forum on Ethnic Groups from the Middle East and North Africa
On Friday May 29th, 2015 a Forum on Ethnic Groups from the Middle East and North Africa was held at Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, Maryland.

Federal Register Notice: Proposed Information Collection; Comment Request; 2015 National Content Test
The 2015 National Content Test (NCT) is part of the research and development cycle leading up to the re-engineered 2020 Census.

2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment
Results of the 2010 Census Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE) on race and Hispanic origin.

Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity
OMB is announcing its decision concerning the revision of Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting.

Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity
Summary and Analysis of Public Comments and Brief Discussion of Research Agenda.

2015 Census Tests, National Content Test
This test was conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau to test census questionnaire content and to obtain nationwide measurements of response rates.

2018 Census Test
The 2018 Census Test took place in Pierce County, Wash.; Providence County, R.I.; and the Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, W.Va., area.

Page Last Revised - June 9, 2022
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