disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities
in special education and the inequities in educational opportunities
are among the most critical issues faced by the U.S. public school
system in the past 30 years. In general, disproportionate representation,
or disproportionality, refers to the over- or underrepresentation
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
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 inequities, and professional development
opportunities for teachers have been cited as factors that play
a role in disproportionate representation.
A panel convened by The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) emphasized
in its report, Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy
for Equity (Heller et al., 1982), the necessity for "improvements
in special education referral, assessment, placement procedures
and instructional practices" (p.112). The NAS panel regarded
disproportionality as harmful when it results from inadequate instruction
in general education programs, inappropriate assessment practices,
or ineffective special education programs. Most recently, a second
NAS panel convened and released a report entitled, Minority Children
in Special and Gifted Education (2002) to revisit the issue
of disproportionality. The report provided multiple recommendations
in the following categories: referral and eligibility determination
in special education; gifted and talented education; teacher quality;
biological and early childhood risk factors; data collection; and
research and development (http://www.nap.edu/books/0309074398/html).
The 19th Annual Report to Congress on the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA) (1997) also cited the disproportionate representation
of racial and ethnic minorities as a major concern for both the
Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Office for Civil
Rights (OCR). OSEP and OCR identified the following major concerns
about disproportionate representation:
may be misclassified or inappropriately placed.
in special education classes may be a form of discrimination.
may be unserved or receive services that do not meet their needs.
22nd Annual Report to Congress included the following information
about the race and ethnicity of students with disabilities:
of Students by Ethnicity
of students in general population
of students in special education population
students from other racial and ethnic groups are overrepresented
to some extent, the national data from the 22nd Annual Report to
Congress pinpoint the magnitude of the problem for African American
children and youth with disabilities. Because state and regional
statistics may show a different demographic picture, school districts
must examine their own data to determine the numbers of students
from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds in special education
programs. In addition to examining the numbers of these students
in special education overall, school districts should examine whether
there are significant differences in the numbers of these students
who are identified in high-incidence categories such as behavioral
disorders, mild mental retardation, or learning disabilities.
provisions of IDEA entitle every student with a disability to a
free appropriate public education (FAPE), an education in a least
restrictive environment (LRE) that is consistent with his or her
educational needs, and nondiscriminatory evaluation procedures.
During the reauthorization of IDEA, Congress expressed its concerns
regarding the disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic
minorities ([IDEA] P. L. 105-17, 1997). Congress also recognized
the problems associated with misidentification and misclassification
and called for increased efforts to reduce the associated intensification
of problems. Misidentification refers to inappropriately recognizing
students from racial and ethnic minority groups as students with
a disability. Misclassification refers to inaccurately labeling
students who have been identified for special education services
and therefore providing these students with inappropriate services.
For example, suppose that a Hispanic child has been classified as
mentally retarded (MR). However, the decision for the classification
did not adequately consider language differences, the student's
culture or the instructional practices. It is possible that a more
accurate classification may be learning disabled. Or the child may
need only instructional supports. To ensure appropriate services,
school personnel must provide suitable assessment techniques and
increase the accuracy of the identification and placement procedures,
when identifying students with special needs. Once students and
their special needs are properly identified, special education services
must provide the supports needed by students with disabilities to
reach their developmental, academic, and social outcomes that will
give them greater opportunities to return to mainstream classrooms.
administrators, parents, special education teachers, and other stakeholders
must take steps to ensure that appropriate referral and assessment
procedures are solidly in place and are followed by all professionals.
But even with the increased attention to disproportionality (both
over and underrepresentation) in recent years, problems persist.
Despite systemic safeguards, students from racial and ethnic minority
groups continue to be referred to or misidentified in special education
or certain disability categories. These patterns in schools, districts
or states may result in a disproportionate representation of minority
students in special education.
is a dearth of research focusing on interventions to reduce disproportionate
representation. In most cases, the problem is addressed by implementing
a prereferral intervention. A recent literature review by Schrag
and Henderson (1996) identified preferral interventions as a successful
way to decrease the number of inappropriate referrals for minority
students. However, when such interventions are not used and students
are inappropriately placed, negative outcomes often result. For
example, students who are placed in special education have a higher
likelihood of obtaining a certificate instead of a diploma. They
also experience lower levels of achievement, high drop-out rates,
low wages, increased teenage pregnancy, and social isolation.
the demographics of our nation's schools become more racially, ethnically,
and socioeconomically diverse, we must closely examine disproportionality
to ensure that we create equitable learning communities. Administrators
should take a close look at school practices that may reduce disproportionality,
including prereferral interventions, family involvement, instructional
practices in general education, personnel preparation, and professional
development, to improve student outcomes and reduce overrepresentation.
As these practices are implemented appropriately and consistently,
the opportunity for all children to reach their potential may be