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The Disproportionate Representation of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Special Education

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The 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 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 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:

  • Students may be misclassified or inappropriately placed.
  • Placement in special education classes may be a form of discrimination.
  • Students may be unserved or receive services that do not meet their needs.

The 22nd Annual Report to Congress included the following information about the race and ethnicity of students with disabilities:

Percentage of Students by Ethnicity
Percentage of students in general population
Percentage of students in special education population
Asian/Pacific Islander
American Indian
Caucasian (non-Hispanic)

Although 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.

The 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.

Policymakers, 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.

There 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.

As 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 achieved.

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