Introduction and Statement of the Problem
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the overrepresentation of minority students in special education programs. The issue is of critical importance and is very complex. If education for children with disabilities were easily understood, special education would be locally funded, because special education programs are so very valuable to the community. Unfortunately this is not the case. Because of federal involvement and the provision of a free, appropriate, public education, persons with cerebral palsy, persons who are deaf or blind, persons with autism, and other individuals with significant disabilities are integral, highly productive members of our national community. These folks did not live in institutions. They lived with their parents and rode the same bus to school that all their friends rode. They were part of school plays and attended birthday parties and baseball games. They received diplomas at graduation. They went to college, and to graduate school, and to supported, competitive employment. Some of them have been our finest public servants, directing important federal agencies, enacting and implementing legislation such as IDEA and the ADA (Lipsky, D.K. & Gartner, A., 1997).
The "picture" of special education programs is not a positive one for all participants. The outcomes which are most positive are those for individuals with significant disabilities--those students who were previously unable to attend school or hold jobs. The most "negative" comments relate to students with mild disabilities such as mild mental retardation, learning disabilities, and behavior disorders (Affleck, J.Q., Edgar, E., Levine, P., & Korteromg, L., 1999; Maynard, J., Tyler, J.L., Arnold, M., 1999; Artiles, A.J., Trent, S.C., Kuan, L.A., 1994). These high incidence disabilities have "emerged" with the passage of the special education laws, and students who are given these labels often have unsatisfactory outcomes--perhaps a label which they, and their parents feel they do not "deserve" ("I may be dumb, but I'm NOT retarded"). Parents and grandparents who were educated in segregated schools are not supportive of any label which implies that their children are deviant from the norm. Parents who did not have good experiences in the public schools are not willing participants in public education processes, and are suspicious of school based activities in which they do not participate. (Turnbull, R. & Turnbull, A., 1997) Wonderful athletes have graduated from high school without learning to read, because they were "placed" in special education, had poor instruction and suffered from low expectations. These students provide a very different side of the special education picture. They have not had positive outcomes, and they are overwhelmingly from ethnic groups other than those from Western Europe (Affleck, J.Q., Edgar, E., Levine, P., & Kortering, L., 1999: U.S. Department of Education, 1996; 2000). The notion that any one race is less able to learn than another is anathema to our national conscience. Despite our best efforts, the problem persists and is documented in the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990, and in biannual reports from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.
The issue of the disproportionate representation of minority groups in special education was discussed in the professional literature as early as 1968. Following the passage of P.L. 94-142, in 1975, both the profession and the Court System attempted to address the issue of the overrepresentation of minority groups in special education. Reports from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, and Office of Special Education Programs have continued to document the problem. As recently as October of 2001, the Secretary of Education, Dr. Robert Paige, expressed his concern about the issue of disproportional representation of minority groups in Special Education programs in testimony to Congress.
The diagnosis of disability is always a complex issue. In settings other than the public school, disability determination is a multidisciplinary process in which teams of professionals work together to determine the appropriate "label" for the individual who is disabled (Snell, M.E., & Brown, F., 2000). Since disability determination often results in financial gain or loss (access to social security disability insurance, rehabilitation services, vouchers for necessary therapies, etc), the process is lengthy; debate is inherent to the process (Sattler, J.M., 2001)
More Different Than the Same
There is a dramatic difference between the diagnosis of low-incidence disabilities, such as severe mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deaf blindness, and high incidence disabilities, such as mild mental retardation, learning disability, and behavior disorder (Reschley, D., 1988, 1997). The problem of the overrepresentation of minority students does not exist in the diagnosis of low incidence disabilities (Overton, T., 2000). High incidence disabilities require an extensive degree of "professional judgment" to come to consensus as to the determination of disability (MacMillan, D.L., & Reschley, D.J. 1998). There is no standard definition for these high incidence disabilities. A student can move from one state to another and "get over" a high incidence diagnosis. It is the very nature of these high incidence disabilities and the frequency with which they occur that contribute to errors in the public school's referral to placement process (Reschley, D.L., 1997; Eads, P., Arnold, M., & Tyler, J.L., 1995).
The culture of America's public schools does not lend itself to deliberative diagnostics. Many schools today do not have multidisciplinary personnel on campus. It is not uncommon to find schools which do not have school psychologists, school social workers, school nurses, or counselors--all of whom contribute significantly to the diagnostic process. It is within the context of this hectic environment that school based disability determinations (eligibility for special education programs) are conducted.
Results of misdiagnosis
Issues related to the problems of misdiagnosis of disability permeate the literature. The issue of misdiagnosis of students receiving special education services has been documented prior to the passage of P.L. 94-142 in the mid seventies. The overrepresentation of minority students in special education, and specifically, the misdiagnosis of mental retardation among African American students have dominated the courts and the professional literature since that time (Larry P. v. Riles, 1972; Artiles, A.J. & Trent, S.C., 1994; McMillan, D.L., & Reschley, D.J., 1998). Recent funding initiatives from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, have encouraged continued research in this area. Much has been written across the 25 year period, but the issue remains a serious concern today.
Disproportionate Representation and the Courts
The legal system has grappled with the issue of the overrepresentation of minority students in special education programs and the results of those efforts are not typically considered in the literature. Most lawsuits challenged the use of intelligence testing as a means of defacto segregation (Hobson v. Hansen, 1967; Larry P. v. Riles, 1972, Marshall et al v. Georgia, 1985; PASE v. Hannon, 1980). These and other lawsuits such as Crawford et al v. Honig, 1998; Diana v. State Board of Education, 1970; Guadalupe Organization v. Tempe Elementary School District, 1972, resulted in the provision of remediation programs to assist districts in achieving and maintaining compliance. These remediation programs provide a framework for determining the sources of bias in the referral to placement process(Reschley, D.J., 1997) and each remediation program shared several common elements.
All programs considered the possibility that local school personnel were unconsciously biased against specific ethnic groups. Indeed, many lawsuits related to the issue of misdiagnosis of mental retardation were brought by ethnic advocacy groups (e.g. NAACP). Because of the concern for unconscious bias, all remediation programs contained a mechanism for addressing the issue. Most common, and most effective, was a method used to allow local school personnel to "discover" and "remediate" their own problems. Empowering school district personnel to recognize bias and attempt to find ways to correct that bias enabled local education professionals to grow professionally and to take increased ownership for making educational decisions (Reschley, D.J., 1988).
Bias Within the Process
The second consideration in the Court-ordered remediation programs was the identification of specific sources of bias in the referral to placement process (Reschley, D.J., 1997). The professional literature has utilized the referral to placement process as an organizational tool to investigate bias (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). Typically the Court-ordered remediation teams considered elements within the referral, the assessment, and/or the placement process.
The referral stage of the process is typically documented by the school's form entitled, "Referral to Special Education". This form lists the date of referral (enabling the researcher to ensure that action is taken within the prescribed period of time), the name of the person making the referral (enabling the researcher to determine which teachers make referrals and the outcomes of those referrals [which teacher referrals result in placement and which never result in placement, etc.]). The name of the student being referred enables the researcher to determine if there are multiple referrals (the student is experiencing difficulty in several classes) or a single referral (the student may be experiencing difficulty in only one class), which may indicate that the referring teacher has sharp insight about the student-or it may indicate that there is no problem with learning, but, perhaps, a personality conflict between a teacher and a student), the specific academic or behavioral problem presented (which allows for comparison among teachers if several teachers have referred the same student). Referrals from parents are of interest as well, particularly if there is a referral from parents and no recorded concern from the student's teachers (MacMillan, D.L., & Reschley, D.J., 1998; Reschley, D.J., 1988).
The assessment phase of the process provides additional descriptive information about the possible sources of bias. By reviewing the records related to the assessment process, it is possible to learn the regularity and frequency of evaluations and reevaluations; the level of credentials held by professionals participating in the assessment process, the number, the source, and the type of assessment instruments used; whether scoring is accurate and whether scores are accurately reported. These sorts of data will be used to determine if one particular test, or one test administrator, consistently results in scores which are different from other similar groups (Murdick, N., Gartin, B., & Arnold, M,, 1994; Arnold, M., 1983; Arnold, M., & Carter, S., 1981).
When the records related to the placement process are reviewed, much information related to bias in the process can be documented. The placement meeting is of special importance since it is the stage where a "label" is assigned, or eligibility is determined. During this stage of the process it is of critical importance that the student and/or family members are present (Arnold, M., 1993; Arnold, M., & Tyler, J.L., 1994; Harrison, L., Arnold, M., & Henderson, D., 1995).
When the school district is able to document that parents attended this meeting, participated in the development of the IEP, and agreed to the label, bias in the placement process is not typically a concern. It is primarily when parents are not informed participants in the process or when a single individual or a single instrument is used for classification and placement that bias in the placement process must be considered (Murdick, N., Gartin, B., & Arnold, M., 1994). The documentation from these meetings will indicate the level of parental participation; the utility of the IEP, the names of participants in the placement meetings and their roles.
Concern for Minority Students
As mentioned earlier, the concerns of African American students have received wide attention in the Courts and in the Literature. There is limited data, which is specific to the needs of Native Americans. Other ethnic groups are typically addressed under the rubric of "culturally and linguistically diverse students" (Baca, L.M. & Cervantes, H.T., 1998; Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B., 1999; Cloud, N., 1993; Day-Vines, N.J., 2000). While this is a useful term, it does not make allowances for the varying cultural elements within the larger "geographic" context among, for example, the Asian American populations, e.g. Vietnamese, Chinese, or among the various Hispanic populations, e.g. Mexican, Puerto Rican. Ignoring the existence of these separate and distinct cultures results in lack of sensitivity to the nuances of language, attitudes toward teachers and education, and the roles of family members within the culture. Ignoring these important elements leads to disproportionate representation.
Need for Future Research
This research review documents a long-standing and long discussed problem in special education. Due to the vast numbers of students receiving special education services who are not of Western European decent, the problem is receiving further attention. However, much of what has been written simply states that inappropriate placement exists.... and that inappropriate placement leads to unfavorable outcomes for students and their families. While some attention has been paid to ways to eliminate disproportionate representation, there is no evidence that those suggestions are being implemented. Further research is needed which documents the WAYS in which various ethnic groups are inappropriately placed into special education programs. For example, we know that African American students constitute over 40% of all students in our nation diagnosed as having mild to moderate mental retardation. Where and how are other minority groups misplaced? What impacts the inappropriate placement? Is it lack of parental participation? Is it bias in the assessment instruments used for placement? Is it a lack of medical care, which has resulted in birth defects? Until a systematic approach is taken to overseeing this issue, determining the causes of disproportionate representation in special education, and developing a school-based remediation plan, the problem will continue to occur. Further research on causes and remedies is critically needed.
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Guadalupe Organization V. Tempe Elementary School District No. 3, No. 71-435 (D. Ariz., January 24, 1972) (consent decree).
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MARIE E. LASSMANN
Texas A & M University-Kingsville
Marie E. Lassmann
B.S. & M.S.--Texas A & I University
Ph.D.--University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Secondary Education
Dr. Lassmann's current research interests include secondary curriculum alignment, secondary special education, and substitute teacher training.
Texas A&M University-Kingsville MSC 196
M.S. & Ed.D.--University of Georgia Associate professor of special education
Dr. Arnold's area of interest includes transition from school to work in international special education and teacher preparation.
Texas A&M University-Kingsville MSC 196