Rural, Minority Children Overrrepresented In Special Ed

By Diette Courrégé Casey — January 17, 2012 2 min read
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Too many rural minority students are categorized as learning disabled, a new study asserts, attributing that in part to an overly broad method used to identify those children.

“Rural Minority Students: A challenge for assessment personnel,” a study published in the December issue of the National Forum of Multicultural Issues, looked at the potential effect of adjusting the formula used to determine the discrepancy between students’ IQ and achievement, which often is used to figure out whether students need special education services. Their research was a theoretical exercise; no school districts actually changed the formula.

Mississippi State University researchers Kenneth M. Coffey and S. John Obringer suggested changing the requirements to reduce the over-representation of rural minority students who are in special education programs. The December issue doesn’t appear to be online yet.

Nearly three-fourths of states use that same formula to identify and place students in special education programs. The article’s authors modified the procedure for a sample of 123 students in a rural Mississippi school district, and they found more rigid assessment criteria would have resulted in smaller numbers of eligible students.

Nationally, the number of special education students continues to grow, with those children accounting for 12 percent of public school students. In Mississippi, the statewide growth far exceeds the national average of 198 percent; the state has seen a 1,020 percent increase in its students with disabilities between 1976 and 1993, according to the study. That’s the biggest growth of any state.

And, as the study’s authors note, the public education challenges facing Mississippi schools primarily are rural; more than 69 percent of its students live in rural areas. More than half of its school-aged children also live in poverty, and 13.2 percent are in special education programs.

Mississippi also is the only state where a minority group constitutes the majority of school enrollment; 52 percent of its public school students are black.

Students who live in poverty and come from diverse backgrounds are more vulnerable to placement in special education, and “the result of this phenomenon may
well be the inappropriate labeling and stigmatizing of at-risk, rural students,” according to the study.

“Without rigor in the assessment guidelines, the eligibility criteria of learning disabilities can be manipulated to serve any at-risk student,” according to the study.

The study gets into more technical specifics on recommendations for changes to the special education identification formula. It suggested future research could evaluate the factors that contribute to minority overrepresentation among those with special needs.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.