Special Report

Disparately Disabled

By Debra Viadero — January 08, 2004 9 min read
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With African-American students showing up in classrooms for children with mental retardation at 3.3 times the rate of white students, it was obvious in 1997 that Alabama had an equity problem with its special education programs. Ordered by a federal court that year to fix it, the state set to work.

School officials re-evaluated 4,000 students who had been classified as mildly mentally retarded and found 390 who didn’t fit the label. They were shifted out of special education. State special educators also gave teachers across the state lessons in correct referral processes, cultural diversity, and proven strategies they could use to cut down on behavior problems and special education referrals.

By last year, the numbers had started to move. State data showed that the ratio of black students to white students in the state’s school-age population classified as having mental retardation had dropped to 3-to-1--still higher than in most states, but better than it had been.

Now, though, special educators in Alabama and elsewhere are worried that their efforts at righting wrongly based demographic imbalances in their programs could be undone by the No Child Left Behind Act and other forces pushing schools to hold most children with disabilities to the same academic standards as those without.

“It could be detrimental to what we’re trying to do,” says W. Mabrey Whetstone, Alabama’s director of special education services. “And what we’re trying to do is keep a lot of these kids in general education.”

Whether the new mandates will swell the flow of students into special education classrooms--or cause them to leave school altogether--is an open question. The architects of the 2001 federal law never intended for it to be a mechanism for emptying regular classrooms of struggling learners. The measure, in fact, requires schools to break out their test scores and show that academic achievement is improving for all subgroups of students--including minority children and those with disabilities--and not just for the total student population. Schools that can’t show that kind of across-the-board improvement risk being labeled as failing.

Nonetheless, some experts believe the possibility that more minority youngsters could be misplaced in special education programs is real. One of those scholars is Jay P. Heubert, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School. Realistically, he says, “which would you rather report to the public--a high failure rate among kids with disabilities or a high failure rate among nondisabled kids?”

The new requirements come as policymakers nationwide, like those in Alabama, have already begun to take steps to ensure that particular groups of students are neither under- nor overrepresented in special education and programs for the gifted and talented.

Under the Clinton administration, for instance, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights made the issue a top priority. Likewise, the 1997 revision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the key federal law governing special education, requires states to begin tracking disproportionate representation in school districts’ special education programs.

Lawsuits brought in virtually every section of the country over the past 30 years have taken individual states to task for alleged disparities in their special education services. And, as recently as last fall, more than 20 national education groups formed a new coalition, the National Association for the Education of African American Children with Learning Disabilities, specifically to address racial and ethnic disparities in special education. In the bargain, they hope to bridge the achievement gap that separates black and white schoolchildren. In 2002, though, when a national panel of prominent scientists looked at the issue, it found that the disparities still had not gone away.

The panel was the second such group in 20 years that the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies of Science, had pulled together to look at potential disparities in special education programs. Like its predecessor group, the Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education found that black students were overrepresented among the nation’s mild mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed classifications. Asian-Americans were underrepresented in most disability categories, showing up in some of them at less than half the rate of white students. And boys populated most of the high-incidence special education categories--except for gifted programs-- in proportions out of sync with their overall numbers.

The likelihood that an African-American boy or a Native American child will end up in a special education classroom owes in large part to geography. Nationwide, for instance, a black child may be 2.3 times more likely than a white child to be classified as mentally retarded. Yet that risk is more than three times as high in the District of Columbia. In Hawaii, Idaho, Vermont, and Wyoming, in comparison, the odds of ending up in a classroom for children with mental retardation are about even for both black and white children.

The disparities are also greatest in the categories with the most subjective eligibility criteria: mild mental retardation, specific learning disabilities, and emotional disturbance. In disability categories with a clearer medical or biological origin, such as traumatic brain injury or visual and hearing impairments, group differences are practically nil.

Cultural Assumptions

Experts agree that some overrepresentation is to be expected because so many minority children grow up in poverty. For instance, schools in poorer neighborhoods often tend to have teaching of inferior quality, says Asa Hilliard, a professor of special education at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Poorer communities also have higher incidences of low-birthweight babies, greater exposure to environmental toxins, and more health problems stemming from malnutrition.

“But when you get to the data, you realize that poverty and exposure to toxins doesn’t really explain it all,” says Daniel J. Losen, a Harvard University scholar who has studied the research on the subject. With a Harvard colleague, Gary Orfield, he edited Racial Inequality in Special Education, a 2002 book examining the subject.

Losen says the cultural assumptions that educators make--albeit often unintentionally--also play a role in determining which students end up in special education and which ones don’t.

“There’s almost this push sometimes on the part of some administrators to almost encourage you to fill out the paperwork to get things moving to get kids into special education,” says Paula White-Bradley, who has taught in three inner-city Atlanta schools. “It’s almost invariably black boys with behavior problems.”

One such boy she remembers teaching was a particularly squirmy 5th grader who preferred to read on the carpet, rather than at his desk. She was inclined to let him be; her principal at the time wanted him at his desk. The principal encouraged White-Bradley to refer the boy for special services.

“If we construct a classroom environment that does not allow for that [behavior], we’re going to define people with a problem,” says White-Bradley.

Determining when the disproportionate numbers cross from being a natural reflection of greater inequalities in society to a product of hidden, systematic biases in schooling itself is still an inexact science.

“We’re hoping the federal government will come up with a methodology that will apply consistently across all states,” says Inderjit K Barone, the data manager for the New York state education department, which has been monitoring its own districts for disparities since 1999.

Likewise, experts are looking for better ways to screen children in need of special education in the first place. To evaluate students who may have learning disabilities, for example, evaluators now use a formula designed to measure the discrepancy between a student’s IQ-test results and his actual achievement. The problem is that black students at all levels of schooling consistently score lower than white students on IQ tests, and some educators believe the tests are biased.

“I think there is a growing consensus in the field that we need to get rid of the discrepancy formulas,” says Alfredo J. Artiles, an associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Experts are divided, though, over what to replace the formulas with. Some suggest a method called “response to intervention,” which requires classroom teachers to tryout new teaching strategies with struggling students before referring them for special help. The Minneapolis district, for one, has used that method to shrink both the gaps in that system’s population of students with disabilities and its overall special education enrollment.

For a long time, special education became a convenient place to put anybody who was going to bring your pass rates down.”

Scientifically speaking, though, the method is still unproven, some experts say. “We don’t know whether this is going to be changing the composition of minority students [in special education),” says Artiles. “I think the point is how do we make educational systems more responsive to cultural conditions.”

Link to Testing

All the opportunities for subjective decisionmaking that creep into the special education selection process are what concern experts now as they try to predict the effect of the No Child Left Behind law on the disparities in special education.

“For a long time, special education became a convenient place to put anybody who was going to bring your pass rates down,” says Columbia’s Heubert.

In Texas, for instance, special education enrollment nearly doubled from 1994 to 1998, the first five years after the state began to implement its high-pressure testing system. Scores on those tests, then known as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, determined which schools would be labeled failures and which students earned diplomas. What’s more, scholars noted, the increases in special education placements were sharpest for black and Hispanic students.

Walter M. Haney, the Boston College researcher who first drew attention to those increases, says they came at a time when special education students’ scores were not counted toward a school’s overall success or failure grade. The numbers stopped climbing after state rules were changed to add the test scores of students with disabilities into the accountability mix.

Many African-American, Native American, and Hispanic children may be particularly likely candidates for special education, Heubert says, because they already fail many state promotion and graduation exams at higher rates than those for white students. Also, he observes, the states that tend to have make-or-break kinds of tests for promotion are also inclined to be those with higher-than-average minority enrollments.

“From a national perspective,” Heubert says, “the kids who are subject to promotional testing are disproportionately minority.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week


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