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The kids hiding in plain sight: Advocates push to collect data on LGBT students

Beth Hawkins | June 22, 2022

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President Biden signed an Executive Order Advancing Equality for LGBTQI+ Individuals on June 15. (Getty Images)

With an unprecedented rise in the number of youth identifying as LGBTQ — and equally unprecedented efforts to curtail their rights — a leading national advocacy group is calling on the U.S. Department of Education to add the sexual orientation and gender identity of students and teachers to the data collected in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The information would be voluntarily reported, anonymous and — notable at a time when some states are shunning data deemed politically unpalatable — collected nationwide. If implemented, the initiative would represent the largest-scale effort to date to document the experiences of the nation’s LGBTQ students.

The push got a boost earlier this week from the White House when President Joe Biden, acting in recognition of Pride month, announced an executive order creating a committee to oversee the expansion of LGBTQ data collection throughout the federal government and directing the department to form a working group to advance policies to protect gay, lesbian and gender nonconforming students and families.

The move comes after years of conversations among civil rights and education advocates who recognized both the need for the data and the complicated nature of collecting it in ways that are backed by scientific and medical best practices; invite LGBTQ participation; will generate information researchers need; and do not expose young people to the safety risks that coming out sometimes poses.

“Not having questions asked about sexual orientation and gender identity creates an invisibility and makes it really hard for lawmakers and policymakers to be able to determine what the actual needs of the community are and how best to address them,” says Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign. “If you don’t have the data, it makes it hard to argue to a policymaker that they have to change their policies in order to protect LGBTQ folks.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 300 bills targeting LGBTQ Americans have been introduced in state legislatures this year, many aimed at transgender youth.

In a formal request submitted in April, GLSEN, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ students, noted that NAEP results are used for scholarly research and to make crucial decisions about education policy and distribution of resources to schools. “To better determine how well our K-12 schools are serving the needs of all students, GLSEN urges the NAEP to add LGBTQ+ inclusive survey measures,” the organization wrote.

The change, civil rights groups say, would push schools to take note of the students’ unique challenges and inform solutions.

First administered more than 50 years ago, NAEP has always documented how well U.S. schools meet the needs of students of different races and ethnicities, those with disabilities, low-income children and other subgroups. The tests are administered to a representative sample of fourth and ninth graders, with the results used to identify unmet needs, illuminate disparities and highlight successes.

In a reply to GLSEN sent before Biden’s executive order, the department said it was considering changes to NAEP assessments that would allow for expanded gender categories. The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the exams, “is actively working towards including more gender identity options in future NAEP data collections both from school records (where we get student gender information) and teacher self-reports via the teacher survey questionnaire,” the agency replied. “We are exploring ways to disaggregate student record data into binary and non-binary as a start.”

No timeline for either change was given. While silent on the topic of modifying NAEP to report sexual orientation, the reply letter noted that the center has been part of ongoing discussions within the federal government about the issue.

LGBTQ rights groups say it’s not enough — and is happening too slowly. According to a survey by The Trevor Project94% of LGBTQ youth in 2021 reported that politics were harming their mental health and that COVID-19 adversely affected their living situation, with just a third calling their home affirming. Forty-two percent said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year, a rate that rises to more than half for trans and non-binary students.

Particularly problematic: States can opt out of collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity when administering some existing surveys, such as the two main Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviews of youth welfare, Warbelow says. This can obscure bias in ways many people might not anticipate, especially as schools often have no formal record of a student’s orientation and young people are leery of outing themselves.

“We have some indication that LGBTQ students are overrepresented in disproportionate school discipline,” she says. “So one scenario [could be] where a straight student and an LGBT student are engaged in a disagreement. Oftentimes, it starts by that straight student engaging in bullying. And you see the teacher or the administration end up sending both kids down to the principal’s office. And then the penalty ends up being stiffer for the LGBTQ student.”

In recent years, scientifically and legally sound collection of data on LGBTQ individuals has gotten a major boost from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which in 2020 recommended that the federal government begin capturing more information and this past March followed up with specific guidance on how best to do so.

Last spring, in the wake of the National Academies’ reports, nearly 200 civil rights organizations came together to press federal agencies to adopt the recommendations. If they succeed, the government will, for the first time, collect data that could be used to draw apples-to-apples comparisons.

Often referred to as the nation’s report card, NAEP is uniquely suited for collecting sensitive demographic information, proponents of the change say. Because the exams don’t assess individual schools, the results can’t be misused by officials bent on finding gay teachers or trans student athletes, for example. People who are uncomfortable participating can opt out.

“We want the federal government to be required to collect data, but the individual participant to have the flexibility to be able to say that they’re not going to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity,” says Warbelow.

For reasons ranging from the well-intended to the political, LGBTQ people are poorly represented in official statistics. For example, an estimated 5 in 6 LGBTQ adults can’t be identified by federal surveys documenting everything from rates of disease to housing discrimination, largely because they rarely include pertinent questions. The experiences of LGBTQ youth in school and in their communities are even more poorly documented.

While education researchers and policymakers can talk about historically underserved students using deep, wide-ranging data about household income, race, disability, English learner status and experience with housing insecurity and the foster care system, what’s known about queer students is often drawn from small surveys or by extrapolating from those that tabulate information in different ways.

For two decades, GLSEN’s own surveys have consistently found that students subjected to in-school bullying and victimization have poorer educational outcomes, including lower attendance, grade-point averages and rates of college enrollment, than their heterosexual, cis-gendered peers. Students who experience both anti-LGBTQ victimization and racism are most likely to skip school out of fear, report feeling like they don’t belong and experience high levels of depression, the organization noted. Other surveys show that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately homeless and in foster care.

Meanwhile, CDC surveys show the number of teens identifying as LGBTQ is growing, adding urgency to the need for accurate information. Using two CDC surveys, researchers concluded that the percentage of youth who identify as “non-heterosexual” rose from 8% to almost 12% between 2015 and 2017.

Williams Institute

Estimates from the University of California Los Angeles’ Williams Institute reveal that the number of individuals ages 13 to 17 who identify as transgender doubled to some 300,000 between 2017, when few of the surveys used to estimate the size of the population asked about gender identity, and 2020, when LGBTQ information was more widely solicited.

States, however, are not required to include LGBTQ demographic information when they help conduct CDC surveys. This erases not just the kids, but the public health and safety crises they are experiencing.

Initial shifts to including LGBTQ questions in federal research have shown that the problems are acute. The Census Bureau began collecting information about the sexual orientation and gender identity of people responding to its Household Pulse Survey a year ago. The initial surveys found that nearly half of LGBTQ people reported experiencing anxiety more than half of the days in a week — twice as many as non-LGBTQ respondents.

Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, has been part of the conversation about collecting more information about LGBTQ students for years. Schools and other institutions, she points out, have drawn lots of wrong conclusions based on simplistic interpretations of statistics.

“Sometimes the narrative that people take away is that this group of students does not perform well,” says Kowalski. “The blame, the burden is shifted to the student and the family instead of the system and the policy.”

She wants the federal government to go further than compiling statistics, with their potential for misuse, to include the people affected — who understand the stakes and the potential — in designing new data systems and overseeing how the information is publicized and analyzed.

“The tech piece is easy; you create another box to check,” she says. “The people piece is the hard piece — and we skip over it alot.”

Disclosure: Disclosure: Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provide financial support to Data Quality Campaign and The 74.

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