Rising numbers of teens who do not declare their ethnicity on college prep tests might be missing out on thousands of dollars in education aid set aside for minorities.
"If students are not indicating their race or ethnicity when they register to take a test, where those results might end up benefiting them in terms of scholarships, they are doing themselves a disservice," said Brian O'Reilly, executive director of the SAT program at the College Board.
Results from exams such as the PSAT are used to determine who gets National Achievement Scholarships, given to high-performing African-American students, and recipients of the National Hispanic Recognition award, given to exceptional Hispanic high school students.
But if qualifying teens don't identify their race on the PSAT -- as 6.2 percent of test takers neglected to do in Maryland last year -- they won't be eligible for the funding.
"The number of students [not responding to the race question] is rising significantly in Maryland and around the country," said Maryland's Assistant Schools Superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer, who worries the trend will affect not only scholarships but the state's ability to track progress.
"If this continues," Peiffer said, "it will make it more difficult to have a good sense of what performance gains, if any, we're making with African-American and Hispanic students, who typically lag behind."
In Maryland, the number of students not identifying their race on last year's PSAT more than doubled from the year before, to 1,134 students. There was a similar increase nationally.
It's a growing concern for school administrators who see their multiracial populations increasing, and there is still no category for mixed-race teens on test forms.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools have to separate test scores by race to identify subgroups of poorer-performing students.
"You can't define a problem if you don't know who they are," said Leslie Wilson, Howard County's testing director.
More than 100 students in Howard neglected to pick a race on the most recent PSAT.
O'Reilly said that not identifying race on tests could hide students from colleges trying to achieve more diversity.
The College Board sells the data it collects on tests such as the SAT and PSAT to colleges, which use the information for recruiting.
But Susan Graham, the Florida-based founder of Project Race, a group that lobbied for the change in racial data collection by the U.S. census, says racially based scholarships and student targeting are not good.
"We believe our children can get entitlements based on who they are and what they've done in their lives and not based on one race or another," said Graham, who has a biracial son. "We don't feel that they have to check the right box to get the goodies."
Graham's 12-year-old group successfully lobbied to add a multiracial category to the American College Test entrance exam. Her group tried to have the College Board do the same several years ago, but it refused, she said.
There are many reasons why students decline to declare their race on tests.
"Picking one race could mean denying half your heritage or insulting one parent," said Howard County schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan, whose teen daughter is biracial.
Caplan's daughter asked that she be identified as African-American on the 2000 census. That sort of self-selection is fine so long as it is the student's choice, Peiffer said. But when teachers do the choosing, trouble could arise.
"Typically what's happened, is if you have a mixed-race student, quite often he or she is considered to be African-American or Hispanic," Peiffer said. "There's been some resentment in the community over that interpretation on the part of teachers."
Most tests offer seven race choices: white, black, Asian, Native American and three Hispanic categories.
Gregory Bricca, supervisor of accountability and assessment for Carroll County's public schools, where fewer than 5 percent of the students decline to report their race, said he sees greater diversity reported at test time.
"Students might not necessarily enroll as an American Indian, but because there are scholarships available for American Indians, they may select that when the time comes," Bricca said, even if they have only slight Native American ancestry.
The 2000 census showed that nearly 7 million people in the United States are multiracial. About 3 million of them are younger than 18.
In Maryland, more than 100,000 people list themselves as being of more than one race, with the largest multiracial populations in Montgomery County (30,117 people in 2000) and Prince George's County (20,884).
In the Baltimore region, the city listed 9,554 multiracial residents; Baltimore County 10,763; Anne Arundel County 8,285; Carroll County 1,102; Harford County, 3,212; and Howard County, 5,435.
The numbers have the College Board considering whether to adjust the race options on tests, O'Reilly said.
"Whenever `other' grows to a certain point, it becomes our job to try to figure out, `Should we be changing the categories?'" O'Reilly said.
He thinks that point has just about arrived, but no formal adjustments have been made.