Translation of country-specific programs and survey error: Measuring the education level of immigrants


  • Patricia Goerman U.S. Census Bureau
  • Leticia Fernandez U.S. Census Bureau
  • Rosanna Quiroz RTI International


Education system differences, measuring immigrant respondents’ education levels, multi-lingual surveys, translation of country specific programs.


The difficulty of translating country-specific programs for use in surveys has been well documented. Questions about educational attainment offer a good illustration of this difficulty, particularly amongst Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States, who come from a variety of countries where education systems are different in both name and structure. This article presents results from cognitive testing of Spanish education-level questions in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. We conducted two iterative rounds of testing with 46 Spanish-speaking respondents from 11 different countries. Respondents had differing interpretations of the Census Bureau’s education-level categories because they differed, either in meaning or by the terms used, from the categories in their countries of origin. For example, Mexican-origin respondents interpreted ‘escuela secundaria,’ or ‘high school,’ to correspond to nine years of schooling, while in the U.S. completing high school corresponds to 12 years of schooling. This type of misinterpretation could result in upward biases in reports of educational levels. We discuss various approaches tested to deal with this type of response error.