Referral, Assessment, and Placement Practices Used in Rural School Districts with Native American Students in Special Education

Article excerpt

Abstract

Considerable information is available regarding the cultural bias inherent in assessment instruments and the disproportionately high placement of minority students within special education classrooms. However, little research is available regarding specific practices used in areas that have high minority representation. Because of these issues, a survey was developed to investigate the referral, assessment, and placement practices used with rural Native American students in special education. Twenty-five northern Minnesota school districts serving populations of Native American students that exceeded the state average were included in the study. Special education directors, Indian education directors, and selected special education teachers from these districts were surveyed. Their satisfaction with referral, assessment, and placement practices used with Native American students was compared, and specific information about those practices was used in an effort to determine best practices. While the scope of this survey was small, the issues raised have direct implications for all rural special education teachers in districts with high minority populations.

Cummins (1989) suggested that minority students who perform unsuccessfully within the educational setting are most frequently members of cultural groups that have been discriminated against by the dominant group. Citing research from Sweden, Canada, and the United States, Cummins concluded that these minority groups "appear to have developed an insecurity and ambivalence about the value of their own cultural identity as a result of their interactions with the dominant group" (p. 111).

In 1989 Cummins also concluded that minority students may be educationally disempowered in the same way that their communities are disempowered within society. However, the gravity of this disempowerment may be mitigated by the role of professionals. If professionals are willing to advocate for minority students, the students' academic difficulties may then be perceived as a function of interactions within the school context. Otherwise, the process is used to legitimize the location of the problem within the student.

Within recent years, educators have become increasingly aware of the impact of possible cultural differences on individual learning (Garcia & Ortiz, 1988). Garcia and Malkin (1993) state that "educational experiences may not take into account the reality that . . . cultural characteristics co-exist and interact with disability-related factors" (p. 52). These factors may lead to "inaccurate differential diagnosis (inability to separate . . . culture from learning problems)" (Rueda, 1989, p. 121).

A concern exists nationally about the overrepresentation of minority students in special education. Ryan (1992) found that in some Minnesota school districts there was a pattern of overrepresentation of Native American students by 50% or more. There may be several possible reasons for this, including discrimination in the form of test bias (Mercer, 1983); socioeconomic or environmental factors affecting academic achievement and behavior such as poverty, lack of stimulation and limited educational opportunity (Brosnan, 1983, Costello, 1989); as well as factors inherent in the special education referral, assessment and placement process itself (Flynn, 1983). There are also "questions about the effectiveness of education practices for those who do not match the cultural mainstream student and teacher population" (Ryan, p. 1617).

Some Native American students from more traditional homes may display certain cultural characteristics that often affect their success in the regular classroom. As a rule, these students are less verbal and may seem less competitive than their classmates who are not Native American. They may also fail to make direct eye contact with teachers and other school personnel (elders). In addition, among these students are many whose parents and grandparents may have attended government boarding schools or who may not have attended school at all. …