In Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) project/ program evaluations, some categories of race (Blacks, Native Americans) and ethnicity (Hispanic) are often collapsed into one group UMR (underrepresented minorities). Practically, this confounding of race and ethnicity has serious implications for data analysis and results. For example, in what group would a person who identifies as Hispanic and White or Hispanic and Black be located? Similar questions can be raised for those who identify as multiracial. One solution is to put individuals in multiple groups but that violates a number of statistical assumptions and inflates sample sizes.

Separately or collapsed, the categories of race and ethnicity are problematic for evaluators. The common perception is that being of a specific race presumes a shared biological or genetic background. But race is not biologically nor genetically based. It is a socially constructed concept with arbitrary criteria, defined by the more powerful group(s) that can vary across time.1 Indeed early in the last century, in the US the Irish were considered a separate racial group2 and in the 1920s some states legally defined any one with “one drop of Negro blood” as Negro or Black, overturning earlier rules that free people who were 3/4ths or 7/8ths White were White.3 The misunderstanding of what race is and the arbitrariness of definitions of race have caused some to question whether race can be used as an independent variable at all in research or evaluation. The feeling is when race is used as an independent variable, other variables such as racism or racialized cultural and educational environments are the actual variables being used.

While the issues are different for ethnicity, they too are very serious. When STEM project/program evaluations are being done, the only ethnicity that is asked about is Hispanic/Latino(a). The dictionary definition of Hispanic/Latino(a), “being a person of Latin American descent living in the United States”4 is so broad that it is not clear what meaning can be drawn from using it. It does not assume common customs, common cultures or even a common language since those from Portuguese speaking Brazil are included.

There are no easy answers here. When evaluating an effort to increase diversity, there is a need to track progress or impact on different groups. There is also a need to be clear about the complexities and the possibilities for inaccurate or incomplete conclusions and misinterpretation. For a start, since there are relatively strong correlations between “race” or “ethnicity” and such variables as income and educational level, these variables should be included in the analysis or controlled for.

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For more about the role of context in evaluation, click here