Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Examining Educational Equity: Revisiting the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Special Education

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Examining Educational Equity: Revisiting the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Special Education

Article excerpt

Educational equity can be framed in terms of both equal opportunities and outcomes (Nieto, 1996), including both the contexts in which students participate in educational experiences and the extent to which those experiences enable their academic growth. This study was designed to examine several key aspects of educational opportunities--disproportionate enrollment in special education, disproportionate access to general education settings, and disproportionate access to ancillary services--in one large, southwestern school district. The type of data used and analytic tools employed are also critical considerations in educational equity. As such, they will be briefly discussed in reference to how this current study was conducted.


The disproportionate representation of minority students in special education has long been a Concern in discussions of educational equity. Hosp and Reschly (2003) cited three main reasons for this: (a) potentially negative effects of stigmatizing labels; (b) restricted access to general education settings, especially for minority students; and (c) lack of conclusive evidence that special education programs are effective. These concerns relate to potential inequities in both educational opportunities and outcomes resulting from ineffective education. Disproportionate representation may also differentially diminish the opportunities of students identified with a disability to interact with teachers and others within the larger school context, especially when educated in segregated settings.


Early research on disproportionate representation of minority students in special education focused on whether the enrollment of students from particular ethnic groups was proportional to their enrollment in the general student population. Disproportionate representation of minority students in special education programs refers to either a higher or lower percentage of students from a particular ethnic group in special education than is found in the general student population and has been well documented as both a historical and continuing concern (e.g., Harry, 1994; Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982; Losen & Orfield, 2002b; Mercer, 1973). Although in general, minority students are disproportionately represented in special education programs, differing patterns of representation have been identified in the research. For example, African American students have often been found to be overrepresented in specific disability categories: emotional disturbance (ED; Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999), intellectual disabilities (ID; Chinn & Hughes; Eitle, 2002; Hornet, Maddux, & Green, 1986; Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Nguyen, 2001; Oswald et al., 1999; Yeargin-Allsopp, Drews, Decoufle, & Murphy, 1995), and learning disabilities (LD; Homer et al.). Yet Horner et al. failed to find disproportionate identification of African Americans with ED and Colarusso, Keel, and Dangel (2001) found African American students were underreferred for LD.

Researchers have also examined relationships between district or student and family characteristics and special education enrollment, as a means of identifying factors related to disproportionality (see Artiles, 2003, for an in-depth discussion of these factors). The most consistent relationship identified in the literature suggests that districts with higher minority populations tend to have lower rates of overrepresentation of African American and Hispanic students (Coutinho, Oswald, & Best, 2002; Coutinho, Oswald, Best, & Forness, 2002; Eitle, 2002; Lester & Kelman, 1997; Oswald et al., 2001; Serwatka, Deering, & Grant, 1995). However, research suggests the opposite may be true for Native American students (Coutinho, Oswald, & Best; Coutinho, Oswald, Best, & Forness). …

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