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Panel Cautions Against Misplacing Minority Pupils in Special Ed.

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Racial imbalance in special-education programs, which has fueled charges of discrimination in many school districts, does not by itself pose a major problem unless the disproportion results from improper assessment procedures and inadequate instructional practices, according to a panel convened by the research branch of the National Academy of Sciences.

The panel's report, released this month, was commissioned by the Education Department, which has repeatedly documented the overrepresentation of minority groups in special education.

In 1978, for example, the department's office for civil rights (ocr) found that black children represented 38 percent of the students in classes for the educable mentally retarded, although they represented only about 16 percent of all elementary and secondary students.

The academy's Panel on Selection and Placement of Students in Programs for the Mentally Retarded based its conclusions on a review of the biennial ocr surveys, other existing research, and its own case studies.

In a published account of its three-year study, entitled "Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity," the panel argues strongly for the improvement of current assessment procedures and educational services, rather than "remedies that would directly eliminate disproportion in placement rates." To reduce educational practices that may contribute to racial imbalance in special education, the panel recommended that school districts adopt teaching approaches tailored specifically to the needs of students.

The purpose of student assessments, the panel contends in its report, is to improve instruction and learning. "We believe that better assessment and a closer link between assessment and instruction will in fact reduce disproportion, because minority children have disproportionately been the victims of poor instruction," the report says.

More Precise Information

The panel also recommended that ocr alter its biennial survey of school districts to include less ambiguous questions and more precise information about special-education enrollments.

The panel's recommendations have not been formally reviewed by ocr, which is responsible for monitoring school districts' compliance with civil-rights laws.

Since 1970, ocr's national surveys of elementary and secondary schools have shown high minority representation in classes for the educable mentally retarded (emr).

The survey's findings have often resulted in discrimination charges against school officials because of the disproportionate numbers of minority children and males in special-education classes.

At the center of the controversy has been the use of I.Q. tests, which civil-rights groups and other advocacy organizations have termed racially biased.

In its review of the ocr surveys and other studies, the academy's panel found insufficient evidence to support such charges and questioned the wisdom of abandoning both I.Q. tests and emr classes. The panel concluded that such action would not solve the problem of educational failure or unequal treatment of minority children.

"Simple solutions that lead only to the reduction of ethnic or sex disproportion are misdirected," the panel warned in its report. "The focus should be on fundamental educational problems underlying emr placement--on the valid assessment of educational needs and on the provision of appropriate, high-quality service."

Turning its attention primarily to the overrepresentation of minorities in emr classes, the panel noted that such classes are "perceived as programs offering few valid educational services, channeling students into tracks that impede their return to regular programs while isolating them from the regular classroom peers."

By contrast, the panel pointed out that the disproportion of minority children in compensatory-education programs has not been challenged because the remedial services are designed to help them achieve levels attained by students in regular programs.

In reaching its conclusion that ocr should revise future survey questionnaires, the panel noted a need to gather more information on special-education programs in small school districts and in those located in the Southeast, where high degrees of racial imbalance have consistently been reported.

Wayne H. Holtzman of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas, who chaired the 15-member panel, said that the changes recommended for the ocr questionnaire would lead to "less distortion in interpreting disproportion and the quality of education as it exists in local school districts."

Instead of relying solely on I.Q. tests, according to Mr. Holtzman, school districts should use intelligence tests in combination with other instruments to determine appropriate placement and instruction.

Referring to the complexity of the federal law protecting handicapped children, Mr. Holtzman said that many school districts are having difficulty "matching the letter of the law." He said the law was "well thought out" when it was drafted but difficult to put into effect because some school districts lack the resources.

The panel's report can be purchased for $18.95 from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418.

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