To a volunteer tutor, the young man's placement in a special- education class in New York seemed baffling.
The African-American teen was indeed a slow reader, and had a detachment that bordered on hostility. Yet after a session or two with his tutor, it also became clear that the student was capable of doing strong academic work. Instead, he daily confronted a watered-down curriculum well below his interest level, and was getting little help with his reading problem.
Special-education classes are designed to offer students extra support in attaining academic skills through a plan tailored to their particular needs. Indeed, in some communities, the label has been overapplied as a way of giving relatively mainstream students access to smaller classes and more individual attention.
But for others, the designation can mean getting stuck in dead- end work. And with the advent of high-stakes testing, which requires students to pass a state graduation exam, the consequences of such placement are becoming more profound - particularly for minorities.
Many educators have long known that racial minorities are heavily represented in special-ed classes. A new report by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., charges that racial minorities make up a disproportionate number of the students involved. Intentional or unintentional racial bias is often a factor.
The mistaken placement of a black male student in a special-ed class "happens ... all the time," says Peter Kuriloff, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
But despite educators' familiarity with the practice, little progress has been made in stemming the excessive flow of minorities into such classes, according to some observers. "These things have been recurrently reported for 30 or 40 years, and nobody has done anything about them," says Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project.
The report offers a new snapshot of the troubling trend.
Only in the past four years have states been required to include information about race in the statistics they provide to the federal government about special education. For the first time, it is possible to get a clear view of the racial makeup of special- education categories.
The numbers make a dramatic statement. Nationwide, about 11 percent of American schoolchildren are classified as needing special education. Within that group, black students are three times as likely as white students to be labeled mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed. In some states, including Connecticut, North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina, black students are four times as likely as whites to be placed in special-ed classes.
The report finds that overall, white students with disabilities are much less likely to be removed from a mainstream public classroom and placed in an isolated special-education class than are minority children with similar problems. Hispanics, native Americans, and other minorities are also affected, although the pattern is most striking among African-American students.
Evaluations that discriminate
To the extent that racism is involved in such placements, it is often unintentional, Professor Kuriloff says. "These are really complicated issues," he points out. "It's not like anyone says, 'Hey, let's misclassify these kids.' " But, he adds, conscious and unconscious expectations tied to cultural differences can play a role in how students are evaluated and labeled.
The surge of popularity for high-stakes testing in US education is bringing the problem into particularly sharp focus. Many special- ed classes involve lower expectations and less-demanding curricula, charge some critics, …