What is disproportionality?
In general, disproportionate representation, or disproportionality,
refers to the over- or under-representation of a given population
group, often defined by racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also
defined by socioeconomic status, national origin, English proficiency,
gender, and sexual orientation, in a specific population category.
A child's race and ethnicity significantly influence the child's
probability of being misidentified, misclassified, and inappropriately
placed in special education programs. Research shows the relationship
between race and ethnicity and other variables for students' placement
in special education classes. Variables such as language, poverty,
assessment practices, systemic issues, and professional development
opportunities for teachers have been cited as factors that play
a role in disproportionate representation.
What is the role of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)
OSEP administers the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA). The reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 requires states to collect
and analyze data to "determine if significant disproportionality
based on race is occurring in the state or schools" and to
revise "policies, procedures, and practices used in the identification
and placement" if it is determined that significant disproportionality
does indeed exist. OSEP reports on the presence of disproportionate
representation of minorities in special education, by both ethnic
group and specific disability, in its Annual Report to Congress.
OSEP also funds various projects (through grants to organizations
and institutions of higher education) such as EMSTAC, to create
technical assistance providers to help districts rectify disproportionate
Why should parents, educators, and community members be concerned
For ethnic minority students, misclassification or inappropriate
placement in special education programs can have devastating consequences.
The problem is exacerbated when it results in a child's removal
from the regular education setting, the core curriculum, or both.
Students faced with such exclusionary practices are more likely
to encounter a limited curriculum and lower teacher expectations.
As a result, these students often have more negative post-school
outcomes as evidenced by their lack of participation in post-secondary
education and limited employment opportunities. In some districts,
the disproportionate representation of ethnic minority students
in special education classes also results in significant racial
separation. This situation raises concerns that unlawful racial
segregation may be occurring, in violation of Title VI.
How is disproportionality monitored in school districts?
The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) undertakes
pro-active compliance reviews of disproportionate representation.
This office gathers information on the racial breakdown of general
and special education enrollments in districts and states. If disparities
occur in these data, OCR conducts statistical analysis using either
the chi-square, fisher-exact, or Z-test to determine whether the
data disparities have statistical significance. Even if statistical
significance is found, the district may not be in violation of the
law. Instead, in citing a district, OCR is alerting that district
that it has a disproportionate representation of minority students
in special education. In all cases, cited districts must voluntarily
agree to work to remedy this disproportionate representation. OCR
works with these districts to create an action plan that details
exactly what approaches the district will take and a time schedule
to report back to OCR.
districts and state education offices take it upon themselves to
determine whether they have an overrepresentation of minorities
in their special education programs. These offices typically follow
methods similar to those used by OCR. Some offices seek technical
assistance from organizations such as EMSTAC to find ways to remedy
issues pertaining to disproportionate representation.
Does disproportionality refer only to ethnicity in special education
or specific disability categories?
A. Districts can be disproportionate in many ways. The most frequently
discussed and addressed form at this time is disproportionality
as it relates to students' ethnicity. Other variables, such as gender
and SES, also may be disproportionate and must be monitored. IDEA
requires districts to collect child find data to stay abreast of
any trends toward disproportionate representation.
What is the most effective strategy for reducing disproportionality
for ethnic minority students?
Disproportionality is a multi-faceted problem. A district should
base its strategy on the unique situation of that district. For
example, some districts' problems stem from disproportionate placement
of ESL students, whereas other districts' problems may deal with
disproportionate representation of African American males in special
education. Although there are some commonalties for dealing with
these issues, the approaches that are used to address the underlying
problems associated with each will surely differ. Research has shown
that reducing disproportionality requires a comprehensive approach
that encompasses teacher training, culturally appropriate assessment
and instruction, cultural sensitivity, home and school collaboration,
and an effective pre-referral process. Each district must work through
a problem-solving process that includes, but is not limited to,
analyzing of the problem, identifying of existing resources, allocating
and using resources, and correcting current practices.
What disability categories have an overrepresentation of ethnically
and racially diverse students?
According to the 22nd Annual Report to Congress, African-American
students are over-represented in 9 of 13 disability categories--specific
learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, mental retardation,
emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments,
autism, traumatic brain injury, and developmental delay. In particular,
African-American students represent more than twice the national
population estimates in mental retardation and developmental delay
categories. American Indian students also exceed the national average
in 9 disability categories--specific learning disabilities, speech
and language impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance,
multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, visual impairments,
deaf-blindness, and traumatic brain injury, with deaf-blindness
and traumatic brain injury reaching the largest percentages. Meanwhile,
Hispanic students exceed population estimates in 3 categories (specific
learning disabilities, hearing impairments, and orthopedic impairments),
and Asian/Pacific Islander students are also disproportionately
represented in 3 categories (hearing impairments, autism, and deaf-blindness).