Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of
Minority Students in Special Education. ERIC Digest.
by Burnette, Jane
Students from some racial and ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely
to be disproportionately placed in special education programs and classes.
For example, in 1992, Black students accounted for 16 percent of the total
U.S. student population, but represented 32% of students in programs for
mild mental retardation (MMR), 29% in programs for moderate mental retardation,
and 24% in programs for serious emotional disturbance (SED) (Robertson,
Kushner, Starks, & Drescher, 1994). To a lesser extent, some groups
of students are underrepresented in special education and overrepresented
in programs for gifted and talented students. Such disproportionate representation
of minority groups is an ongoing national problem. This digest concerns
the overrepresentation of minority students in special education.
The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the U.S. Office
for Civil Rights (OCR) have three concerns about disproportionate representation:
(a) Students may be unserved or receive services that do not meet their
(b) Students may be misclassified or inappropriately labeled.
(c) Placement in special education classes may be a form of discrimination.
Reducing disproportionate representation is a high priority for both
offices and for many groups and associations that represent ethnic minorities
and/or special education.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO REDUCE OVERREPRESENTATION?
Overrepresentation is a complex problem, and reducing it calls for pervasive
strategies. Reducing overrepresentation is a matter of creating a successful
school environment for all students and accurately distinguishing disabilities
from cultural differences. An ecological approach that recognizes the influence
of the learning environment on the process of teaching and learning is
critical. It is important to appreciate that the risk of low academic performance
and challenging behaviors does not reside solely within the child or family--instructional,
classroom and school variables can and do contribute to academic problems.
Suggestions to reduce disproportionate representation are presented below
and in the following sections.
(1) Develop a district-wide vision for the education of all students.
(2) Review traditional school practices to identify and address factors
that may contribute to student difficulties.
(3) Redefine staff roles to support a shared responsibility for all
(4) Form policy-making bodies that include community members, and promote
partnerships with service agencies and cultural organizations.
(5) Help families get social, medical, mental health and other support
services. Develop supports such as early childhood and at-risk programs,
and offer an array of services to the community.
(6) Recruit and retain educators who have had course work and experience
with diverse student populations and who are from diverse backgrounds.
PROMOTE FAMILY INVOLVEMENT
Although involving parents and families is key to raising academic achievement
for students from minority backgrounds, schools have often been unsuccessful
in achieving high levels of participation from low-income and bilingual
parents. These parents may have had negative experiences in school and
may be reluctant to meet with educators, or they may have little formal
education and feel unqualified to contribute. If they are asked to make
contributions for which they don't feel qualified, their negative feelings
may be exacerbated. Schools that have raised the achievement of minority
students tend to be those in which parents and family members participate
in a variety of roles, including shared governance. Suggestions for promoting
(1) Identify and address obstacles to parent participation. Offer school
staff comp-time for facilitating parent availability for meetings.
(2) Provide options for involvement that are matched to families' motivations,
interests and abilities and make sure that families are aware of the many
ways they can support the education of their children.
(3) Ensure that the school is welcoming, staff are accessible, and staff
understand and respect diverse family networks and child rearing traditions.
(4) Include family members beyond the nuclear family who are involved
in daily child rearing.
(5) Make parents and families aware of the roles and responsibilities
expected of them in the school--these may differ from their roles and responsibilities
in their own cultures.
(6) Support parent-to-parent advocacy such as Title I liaison activities.
(7) Communicate in ways that convey respect and appreciation for cultural
(8) Translate documents for families who do not communicate easily in
MAKE THE GENERAL EDUCATION CLASSROOM CONDUCIVE TO
SUCCESS FOR ALL CHILDREN
Educators need to be aware of the cultural influences on behavior. They
may need training to develop their knowledge of cultural beliefs, values,
behaviors and expectations, as well as their own attitudes, values and
perspectives toward diversity. They should know how to use cross-cultural
communication skills with students, families and community members and
be able to develop, evaluate, and use multicultural curricula and interventions.
For most children referred for evaluation, academic failure is related
to problems in learning to read. It is crucial to emphasize reading and
to have a strong array of alternate instructional strategies to address
reading difficulties. Curricula should incorporate students' cultural backgrounds,
be relevant to their lives, and build on their experiences.
When a student's English proficiency is limited, it may be difficult
for a teacher to tell if academic problems are due to a disability or a
language difference. In such cases, the teacher must informally assess
the student's English language proficiency. Enhancing traditional tests
with other assessments such as classroom observations and performance measures
can provide the information needed to develop appropriate lessons or identify
alternative teaching strategies. Other strategies to support minority children
(a) Teach students how to study and how to learn, as well as social
skills and cross-cultural understanding.
(b) Create active learning experiences that allow children to learn
in their own styles and according to their own aptitudes.
(c) Use pre-referral strategies in general education. Document the strategies
used and their results.
(d) Provide training in alternative instruction and materials and in
distinguishing the characteristics of a disability from characteristics
that reflect cultural differences.
(e) Use joint problem-solving to extend each teacher's repertoire of
instructional strategies and provide multiple perspectives on a student's
difficulties. Problem-solving should not be the sole responsibility of
special education personnel.
INCREASE THE ACCURACY OF REFERRAL AND EVALUATION
A clear referral system, including specific criteria, implementation
procedures, and evaluation procedures, is essential to appropriate referrals.
The process should rule out other factors that might contribute to behavioral
and academic difficulties. It should substantiate that the student's academic
or behavioral problem is consistent and pervasive and reflects a disability
rather than a cultural difference, lack of English language proficiency,
or economic disadvantage. Documentation of pre-referral efforts and their
results should accompany the referral to aid in interpreting assessment
results and planning effective special education interventions.
Multiple assessment measures and a broad base of student data are essential
to a valid determination of eligibility and placement. Over-reliance on
IQ scores is inconsistent with IDEA and Section 504 and contrary to sound
educational practices. When used in conjunction with more formal assessments,
alternative assessments have the potential to provide information that
helps to distinguish differences from disabilities. Overall, information
should be available about the student's total environment (school, home,
community, peer groups) and his or her ability to learn in each of these
The following recommendations also help to increase the accuracy of
referral and evaluation:
1. Ensure that the staff knows requirements and criteria for referral
and is kept abreast of current research affecting the process.
2. Check that the student's general education program uses instructional
strategies appropriate for the individual, has been adjusted to address
the student's area of difficulty, includes ongoing communication with the
student's family, and reflects a culturally responsive learning environment.
3. Involve families in the decision to refer to special education in
ways that are sensitive to the family's cultural background.
4. Use only tests and procedures that are technically acceptable and
culturally and linguistically appropriate. Testing personnel should have
had training in conducting these particular assessments and interpreting
the results in a culturally responsive manner.
5. Personnel who understand how racial, ethnic and other factors influence
student performance should be included in the eligibility decision.
6. When eligibility is first established, a set of firm standards for
the student's progress and readiness to exit special education should be
PROVIDE APPROPRIATE SPECIAL EDUCATION SERVICES
Special education is not a place, but an array of services to support
the student's progress. The services provided to a student should be an
outgrowth of the assessment process, which reflects the student's unique
background. All of this should be reflected in the student's individualized
By law, services must be provided in the least restrictive environment.
Students with disabilities may not be removed from the general education
classroom and placed in separate special education settings unless it has
been explicitly determined that the general education setting is not appropriate
to the student's educational needs, even with supplemental aids and services.
A unified system that includes general and special education, with more
services provided in the general education classroom, can provide flexible
MONITOR THE PROVISION OF SERVICES
States and districts should continuously monitor referral and enrollment
data by race, ethnicity, language, disability, gender, age, and socioeconomic
status. The 1997 amendments to IDEA require states to collect and report
data on race and ethnicity along with data on disabilities. As well as
giving the state or district needed data on their student demographics,
this provides the data to assess efforts to reduce disproportionate representation.
FEDERAL ACTIVITIES TO REDUCE OVERREPRESENTATION
OSEP and OCR continue to address disproportionate representation as
a priority. OSEP funds important research and technical assistance activities
that provide insight into the issues and strategies to resolve these concerns.
This research has played a critical role in advancing the knowledge and
understanding about how to address the multiple, complex issues concerning
minorities and special education. OCR has designated minority students
in special education as a priority enforcement issue. Both OSEP and OCR
are developing and disseminating resource materials to help prevent and
correct disproportionate representation.
This digest is based, in large part, on a report prepared by Project
FORUM at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education
(Markowitz, Garcia & Eichelberger, 1997). Project FORUM, funded by
OSEP, worked closely with staff from OCR during the development of the
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