Special Education

Minority Students Still Missing Out on Special Education, New Analysis Says

By Christina A. Samuels — August 28, 2017 5 min read
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The research team whose work runs counter to conventional wisdom about minority enrollment in special education has released a new study that looks at a different, larger data set and comes to the same conclusion as its previous work: black and Hispanic children, as well as children of other races, are enrolled in special education at rates significantly lower than those of their white peers.

Federal policy, including a new set of regulations set to take effect in the 2018-19 school year, are built around the idea that minority students are at particular risk of being pushed into special education, and that states and school districts should be aware of such disparities and take efforts to fix them.

Researchers Paul L. Morgan, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University, and George Farkas, an education professor at University of California-Irvine, have argued that when comparing minority children to otherwise similar white peers, it is the white children who are getting services at a higher rate while minorities may be missing out on the help they need. Their 2015 New York Times commentary, “Is Special Education Racist?” prompted a flurry of responses and counterreponses.

New Study Analyzes NAEP Test-Takers

In the latest study, published online Aug. 28 in the journal Educational Researcher, they come to the same conclusion, this time looking at students who took the National Assessment for Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. The test is given to a nationally representative sample of students every few years in reading, math, and other subjects; for this analysis, Morgan and Farkas looked at reading, which included nearly 400,000 scores of students in 4th, 8th and 12th grades.

An initial analysis showed that in some cases, black students who took the NAEP were more likely than white students to be enrolled in special education. But that was only the case when the researchers did not consider factors that allow for contrasts between students who are otherwise similar except for race.

For example, among 4th grade students whose reading achievement was in the lowest 10 percent nationally, 74 percent of White students were receiving special education services, compared to 44 percent of black students with similar reading achievement.

Other racial and ethnic groups with low reading achievement were also less likely than White students to receive special education services. For Hispanics, 43 percent were enrolled in special education, 34 percent of Asians, 48 percent of American Indians, 43 percent of Pacific Islanders and 66 percent of students of multiple races.

Morgan and Farkas also observed under-identification in 8th grade and 12th grade reading, and across the several disability categories that NAEP tracks, including such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, specific learning disability, and speech and language impairment, as well as more low-prevalence disabilities.

Special Education Identification Findings Mirror Other Studies

These findings are particularly significant, not only because they replicate the earlier study, but because the new study was designed to address what critics called out as a weakness of their earlier research, Morgan said. In 2015, Morgan and Farkas found similar results, using a national sample of young children. Critics said that national sample didn’t reflect the known prevalence of students with disabilities, so it wasn’t possible to draw conclusions from that data.

The NAEP data, in contrast, is much broader, includes older children, different disability categories, and a wider range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. This new study also allows for contrasts between students attending the same schools.

“With these new findings, it’s more difficult to discount what we’ve reported previously as just the result of some kind of flawed sampling,” Morgan said in an interview.

For Morgan, these findings are no different than other studies that have shown higher rates of asthma among black children.

“We have to acknowledge there are many societal inequities that children are exposed to,” he said, such as low birth weight, prematurity and lead exposure. All those factors could contribute to the fact that black students may be at greater risk for disabilities.

“It’s very important to make sure that children are not inappropriately identified as having disabilities based on their race. But equally so, we shouldn’t be keeping children from appropriately being identified based on race,” he said.

Federal Policy Focuses on Overrepresentation

Federal policy, however, is still focused on making sure special education programs are not enrolling too many minority students.

Starting in the next school year, districts will be poised to take a closer look at the race and ethnicity of students identified for special education. They are also supposed to examine placement decisions and suspensions and expulsions. Districts found to have what the law calls “significant disproportionality” will be required to take 15 percent of their special education funds and use that money to identify and address the “root causes” of the problem.

Even though the calculation would be standardized, states would retain the authority to determine just what risk ratio is significant. That threshold must be “reasonable,” however.

In early 2016, Education Department released an analysis that offers a hint about what it thinks would be reasonable risk ratios. For example, identifying minority students with emotional disturbance at three times the rate of nonminority students over three years would meet the disproportionality threshold. States don’t have to use the Education Department’s analysis. But if all of them chose to do so, about 8,100 school districts—close to half of the nation’s districts—would have significant disproportionality in at least one monitored area.

“It’s not about identifying bad actors. It’s an opportunity to check practices and supports,” said Michael K. Yudin, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, in a February 2016 press call introducing the policy. “We can’t begin this hard work unless we’re honest and forthright about the disparities that we see.”

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