American students overrepresented in special education programs

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Overrepresentation or disproportionality is an ongoing problem that has plagued our nation for several decades. Based on the percentage in the school general population, African American students are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to be overrepresented in disability categories such as emotional/behavioral disorders and learning disabilities. Disproportionality is a critical long-standing issue with many casual factors and no strategy or educational intervention has significantly impacted the problem. This paper examines the disproportionality of African American students in special education programs from a historical perspective and several factors that shape this problem. Strategies to reduce disproportionality are also discussed.

Separate and Still Unequal: Why are so many African American Students Overrepresented in Special Education Programs?

Overrepresentation of minority students in special education programs is a prevalent problem that has been documented almost since the inception of special education. This phenomenon is also referred to as disproportionality. Disproportionate representation occurs when the percentage of minority students in special education programs is greater than that in the total school population. For example, government reports have revealed that African American students constitute 14.8% of the school-age population yet they represent 20.2% of the students placed in special education (Losen & Orfield, 2002). Klinger et al., (2005) reported that African American students are 2.41 times more likely than White students to be labeled as mentally retarded, 1.13 times more likely to be labeled as learning disabled, and 1.68 times as likely to have an emotional or behavioral disorder. Yet, African American students are underrepresented in gifted programs (Zhang & Katsiyannis, 2002).

Although Hispanics/Latinos and American Indian students are overrepresented, African Americans are significantly affected. African American students are usually over represented in high incidence or "soft" special education categories such as mental retardation, emotional/behavioral disorders, and learning disabilities (Zhang & Katsiyannis, 2002). These categories are often subjective or judgmental because they do not rely on diagnosis from a medical professional (Parrish, 2002). This paper provides an overview of disproportionality of African American students in special education programs by looking at the issue from a historical perspective. Several factors that shape this problem will be examined as well as ways to address these disparities.

Disproportionality negatively impacts students of color because once African American students are receiving special education services; they are more like to remain in special education classes throughout their years in school. They are more likely to receive a less rigorous curriculum and are denied access to their general education peers. Disabled students are often stigmatized and treated differently by other students in their schools. Overrepresentation may also cause some students to be misclassified or inappropriately identified as having a disability. To further exacerbate the problem of disproportionality, Fierros and Conroy (2002) found that once identified with a special education disability, African Americans and Latinos/Hispanic students are more likely than white students to be placed in more restrictive or segregated educational settings.

Background History

Disproportionate representation of ethnic and racial minorities is rooted in educational segregation and discrimination. Dunn (1968) first raised concerns about this issue in the sixties. He described the disproportionate number of ethnic and language minority students labeled as mentally retarded and placed in self-contained classrooms which raised significant educational and civil right concerns. Ferri and Connor (2005) have also maintained that disproportionality has historical roots. After schools were integrated in 1954, following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the number of African American students placed in special education programs increased. Some schools instituted strategies of resegregation by using ability tracking which divided white students from African American students based on achievement and ability level. African American students were usually placed in lower ability tracks based on their test results. Some have argued that the tests were biased against the lower scoring group or that they reflected the effects of the past segregation in the schools.

Over referring African American students for special education was another way to resegregate students. Segregation could now be achieved by building separate classrooms. The resistance to desegregation was so pronounced that other schools suggested separating students on the basis of gender to curve miscegenation and some even suggested abolishing public school altogether. The Prince County Schools in Virginia closed between 1959 and 1964 and issued white students state sponsored grants to attend private schools during this time (as cited in Ferri & Connor, 2005). Lastly, according to Ferri & Connor (2005), Southern states continue to have some of the highest rates of overrepresentation regardless of the students' social class.

OCR and Court Cases on Disproportionality

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) became concerned with overrepresentation in 1968 when it began surveying minority special education placement in schools. Today the OCR continues to document and attempts to prevent overrepresentation by gathering information on the racial breakdown of general and special education enrollment in districts and states biennially. Landmark court cases such as Diana v. State Board of Education (1970) and Larry P. v. Riles (1971) challenged the use of biased testing for placing minority students in special education classes. These cases originated in California and emphasized the overrepresentation of minority students in mental retardation classes. The plaintiffs prevailed in both cases. In Diana v. State Board of Education, the court ruled that Diana, a Spanish-speaking student, should be retested in her primary or native language to avoid errors in placement. The Larry P. v. Riles case set a precedent for the use of data indicating disproportionate placement of minority students. The judge ruled that IQ tests may not be the sole assessment used to place minority students in special education programs.

IDEA and Disproportionality

The reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 did not define disproportionality but stipulated that states must monitor disproportionate representation by race or ethnic groups in disability categories and take steps to address disproportionality. The IDEA further required states to collect and analyze data and identify patterns of significant disproportionality in racial and ethnic categories. The results of these analyses must be reported in the states' biennial State Performance Plans. Each state has the discretion to define what constitutes significant disproportionality for the local educational agencies (LEAs) in the State and for the State in general. However, each State's definition of significant disproportionality must be based on an analysis of numerical/statistical information only. States must publicly report revised policies, practices, and procedures if there is a finding of significant disproportionality. Lastly, LEAs with significant disproportionality are required to use 15% of funds received under Plan B of IDEA, to provide Early Intervening Services for struggling students.

Magnitude of the Problem

There is a large body of research documenting the overrepresentation of minority students in special education. Oswald et al., (1999) analyzed extant data from the 1992 Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Compliance Report to describe the extent of disproportionate representation of African American students labeled as seriously emotionally disturbed (SED) and mildly mentally retarded (MMR). They also wanted to determine the extent to which economic, demographic, and educational variables at the district level were associated with disproportional identification for this ethnic group. They found that 1.4% of African American students were identified as MMR whereas only .6% of non-African American students were so identified. African American students were nearly 2.5 times more likely to be labeled as MMR and 1.5 times more likely to be SED. African American overrepresentation in MMR classes worsened when the school district's poverty levels increased and poor African American students are 2.3 times more likely to be identified by their teacher as having MMR that their white counterparts. There was no MMR identification for African American students in wealthy communities whereas in high poverty communities there was little difference between the SED rates for African American students.

Zhang and Katsiyannis (2002) used data extracted from three federal government publications to find out whether or not there have been any recent improvements or changes in overrepresentation of minorities in special education. The findings from the study echoed past concerns regarding African American students in special education. African American students continued to have the highest representation in all three categories (mental retardation, learning disabilities, and emotional behavioral disturbances), whereas Hispanic and Asian/PI students were underrepresented in these categories. Skiba et al., (2005) explored the impact of a variety of socio-demographic and poverty-related variables on levels of ethnic disproportionality in special education. Their findings suggested that African American and American Indian/Alaska Native students were overrepresented in all disability categories. Also, African American students had the highest level of representation in the disability category of specific learning disability.

Only a few studies have addressed disproportionality across educational environments. However, a study conducted by Skiba et al., (2006) examined whether African American students with disabilities received their special education services in the same educational environments as other students with disabilities. This study which involved students in 10 school districts in Indiana during the 2001-2002 school year, focused on 5 disability categories (emotional disturbance, mild mental retardation, moderate mental retardation, learning disabilities, and speech and language). Results indicated that in almost all disability categories, African American students were overrepresented in more restrictive educational environments and underrepresented in less restrictive educational environments than their peers with the same disabilities. Disproportion was most evident among students with disabilities served primarily in general education. General education class placement was defined by state statute as removal from general education for less 21% of the school day and separate class placement was defined by state statute as removal from general education settings for more than 60% of the school day.

Disproportionality or overrepresentation is usually unfamiliar or misinterpreted by school staff. Shippen, Curtis, & Miller (2009) investigated the perceptions of general and special educators and school counselors on the topic of overrepresentation through the use of focus groups. The study was conducted in a rural school in Alabama with a history of overrepresentation of African American students identified as mentally retarded. These students were 3 times more likely to be labeled as mentally retarded. General education teachers and school counselors were not aware of the problem of overrepresentation and did not have an understanding of the problem. They were frustrated with timelines established in the referral process and believed the process was ineffective. Also, the general educators reported being concerned about assessment, when it should occur, and how much assessment is too much when testing a student for special education services.

On the other hand, special education teachers were familiar with overrepresentation but believed it did not exist in the current system. Unlike the general educators, the special educators supported the referral process by saying it was effective. Both the general and special educators indicated that more attention and support was needed in the area of assessment. Also, they both agreed that parental influence was a contributing factor to overrepresentation. Although school counselors misunderstood disproportionality, they voiced feeling helpless and blamed for the problem. In the area of assessment, they reported being confused about disability characteristics and defining qualities of diagnosis. School counselors also believed parental involvement was an influencing factor in overrepresentation. The literature about disproportionality is clear. Minority students constitute a disproportionately large number of students in special education programs. Although the numbers show a varying pattern, the problem still persists.

Measures of Disproportionality

Although it is evident that disproportionality exists among minority students in special education programs, the methods used to measure the extent of the overrepresentation may yield conflicting results that are often too difficult to interpret (Coutinho & Oswald, 2000). The three common metrics used include the composition index (CI), risk index (RI), and risk ratio (Skiba, et. al, 2006). The CI is a clear cut measurement and refers to the make-up of some category or population. The CI compares the percentage of those served in special education from a given ethnic group with the proportion of that group in the population or school enrollment. For example, if you wanted to know the composition of African American students in the category of mental retardation (MR), you would divide the total number of African American students in MR by the total number of all students in the category of MR. The CI is widely used even though it has no cutoff criterion.

The CI is often confused with the RI, which is another way to describe disproportionality. The RI allows for comparison of the proportion of the overall population that is served in special education to the proportion of all other racial/ethnic groups combined (Skiba, et. al, 2006). If you wanted to look at the RI of African American students classified as MR, you would divide the total number of African Americans in the MR category by the total number of African Americans age 6-21 in the population. A risk ratio greater than 1.0 suggests that students have an increased likelihood of being overrepresented, less than 1.0 indicates that students have a decreased likelihood of being overrepresented, and 1.0 indicates no difference between the racial/ethnic groups. For example, if you were comparing African American RI of 2.64% for MR identification with the RI of 1.18% of White students with MR, (2.64/1.18) yields a risk ratio of 2.24, which suggests that African Americans are more than two times more likely to be served in the MR category than White students. The RI alone is not too meaningful. In order to best interpret the RI, the risk ratio is needed to compare the RI for one demographic group with that of another group or the total population (Skiba, et. al, 2006). The absence of standardized criteria for disproportionality continues to lead to confusion and misinterpreted data. A standardized measure is needed to help those at the state and district level who may not be familiar with statistical analysis.

Probable Causes of Disproportionate Representation

Disproportionality is a complex problem that has been linked to multiple factors depending on the school and/or school district. Skiba, et. al, (2008) identified several possible causes of disproportionality including psychometric test bias, socio-demographic factors, unequal opportunity in general education, and special education eligibility and decision-making processes. Since the 1970s, test bias has been mentioned in the literature as a possible reason why African American students are labeled with a disability and deemed eligible for special education services. Critics of standardized assessments stress the biased nature of these assessments towards students who are not Caucasian and middle-class (Reschly, 1996). Although test bias has been examined extensively, researchers have not always reached the same conclusions because of inconsistent findings in certain areas. Also, there are many factors that contribute to test bias and the studies that were conducted in the 1970s and 1980s focused mainly on the WISC and WISC-R intelligence tests which are rarely used today (Skiba et. al, 2008). However, test bias cannot be ruled out as a probable cause of disproportionality. Disparate representation of minority students may be linked to socio-demographic factors. These factors include the student's poverty level, neighborhood and housing stability (Ainsworth, 2002), the student's home environment (Caldas & Bankston, 1999), and geographic location (Huebner, 1985). Poverty related factors have been known to place a student at greater risk of poor academic performance and behavioral outcomes (Donovan & Crosss, 2002). When students experience limited educational opportunities in general education, they are more likely to be referred for special education services (Artiles & Trent, 1994). Inequities in physical facilities, resources, and teacher preparation and experience all have negative effects on the educational opportunity and school achievement of African American students from low socieo-economic status which increases the students' chances of being referred for special education services (Skiba, Bush, & Knesting, 2002).

The special education eligibility process begins with a referral usually from a student's teacher. The student is referred because of academic or behavioral issues as indicated by the teacher. Data has suggested that racial bias in the referral process is a cause for disparities of African American students in special education. Researchers have found that minority students are referred more often than nonminority students and teachers tended to refer these students for exclusively behavioral rather than academic problems (Gottlieb, Gottlieb, & Trongone, 1991). Decisions concerning a student's placement in special education are made after the student is assessed by a multidisciplinary team of people who should be familiar with the student. Harry and Klinger (2006) identified inconsistencies in the conferencing phase of the special education eligibility process that may contribute to disproportionality. They noted that the rates of special education referrals differed by the race and ethnicity of the teacher, the disproportionate weight given the opinion of the referring teacher at the case conference, and the weak emphasis on prereferral strategies. Other probable causes of disproportionality include the failure to recognize and accommodate cultural differences among minority groups, cultural mismatch between students and teachers which lead to increased biased referral rates, and the lack of responsiveness to cultural and socioeconomic differences among students and their families. Despite extensive research, the actual causes of disproportionality are difficult to isolate and understand.

Strategies to Reduce Disproportionality

Disproportionality is a multifaceted problem that requires a comprehensive approach to reduce racial disparity. Researchers have proposed the following strategies to reduce overrepresentation:

Team-based needs assessment models for addressing disproportionality (Klinger et al., 2005).

Teacher training in culturally responsive pedagogy (Klinger et al., 2005).

Culturally responsive behavioral supports to address classrooms disruptions and school discipline (Klinger et al., 2005)

Effective prereferral intervention response systems in schools (NABSE, 2002).

Curriculum-based measures as a means to determine eligibility (McLean, 2005).

Culturally responsive functional assessments that emphasize content for understanding a student's academic or behavioral difficulty (Artilles & Trent, 1994).

Collaborative family partnerships that begin at the prereferral stage where parent roles are established and decision-making is shared (NABSE, 2002).

Reducing disproportionality is a matter of creating school environments where success is encouraged for all students. Educators must be aware of and respect the students' diverse backgrounds and cultural differences. Educators must also understand how cultural differences influence student behavior and learning. Training may be needed to develop their knowledge of cultural beliefs, values, behaviors, and expectations. Parent involvement should be welcomed and parents should be empowered to participate in all aspects of their children's learning. Schools should develop early intervention services to identify and respond to those students struggling early on.


Disproportionality is a widespread problem that continues to affect minority students. Although, there has been some debate concerning the meaning and extent of the problem, overrepresentation continues to occur. Researchers have studied this phenomenon extensively for years yet no definitive causes or real solutions to eradicate this problem have been successful.

However, I posit that African American students remain overrepresented in special education programs mainly because there is a disconnect between the race, culture, and class of teachers and students in most schools. This disconnect carries over to the special education referral, assessment, and eligibility process.

Overrepresentation can be reduced by refining the assessment and evaluation procedures used in general and special education so that practices are designed and implemented with an understanding of cultural differences and disability. Teacher education programs should be culturally responsive to include the critical cultural knowledge skills and experiences for the inclusion and instruction of culturally diverse students and students with disabilities. Since the majority of referrals for special education are made for reading difficulties. Teachers would benefit from intensive training in how to teach reading and its associated skills. The use research based reading programs is helpful as well as other intensive interventions in academics and behavior. Schools should establish early universal screening for all students. The focus should not be on disabilities but on early intervention and supports for students experiencing academic and/or behavioral difficulties. Lastly, family involvement is a critical component in decreasing disproportionality. This comes as no surprise because researchers continue to hypothesize that family involvement is a major factor in improving student achievement.