Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Are Black Children Disproportionately Overrepresented in Special Education? A Best-Evidence Synthesis

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Are Black Children Disproportionately Overrepresented in Special Education? A Best-Evidence Synthesis

Article excerpt

Black children have often been reported to be overrepresented in special education (e.g., Dunn, 1968; Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999; U.S. Department of Education, 2015; Zhang, Katsiyannis, Ju, & Roberts, 2014). Concerns that schools are misidentifying children as having a disability based on their race or ethnicity have resulted in National Research Council reports (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982), policy briefs (e.g., National Education Association, 2007), position statements (e.g., National Association of School Psychologists, 2013; Skiba, 2012), federal civil rights investigations (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, 2009), legal challenges (e.gMarshall et al. v. Georgia, 1984, 1985), legislative amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; 20 U.S.C. [section] 1416[a][3][c]), and governmental investigation (Government Accountability Office, 2013). Special education has been characterized as "discriminatory" (Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azzis, & Chung, 2005, p. 142) and having "systemic bias" (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Nguyen, 2001, p. 361) against Black children as well as constituting a "legalized form of structural segregation and racism" (Blanchett, 2006, p. 25) and "institutionalized racism" (Codrington & Fairchild, 2012, p. 6). Federal law currently mandates that local educational agencies report and address significant overrepresentation in special education. The U.S. Department of Education (2016) is currently considering expanding these compliance monitoring requirements.

Yet there is substantial ambiguity as to whether and to what extent Black children's overrepresentation is explained by factors other than their race or ethnicity (e.g., Donovan & Cross, 2002; MacMillan & Reschly, 1998; R L. Morgan et al, 2015; P. L. Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier, & Maczuga, 2012; Shifrer, Muller, & Callahan, 2011 ; Skiba et al., 2005). Although many prior studies found that Black children are disproportionately overrepresented in special education (e.g., Oswald et al., 1999; Skiba et al., 2005), some recent studies have found that they are less likely to be referred or found eligible for special education when contrasted to otherwise similar White children (e.g., Hibel, Farkas, & Morgan, 2010; R L. Morgan et al., 2012, 2015; Shifrer et al., 2011). Still other studies have reported both over- and underrepresentation (e.g., Sullivan & Bal, 2013). Evaluating the strength of the empirical evidence as to whether Black children's overrepresentation in special education is explained by misidentification based on race or ethnicity is necessary for properly informed practice and policy.

Necessity of Covariate Adjustment When Estimating Minority Disproportionate Representation

Minority disproportionate representation (MDR) in special education occurs when disability identification and service receipt are based on race or ethnicity (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, & Ortiz, 2010; Oswald et al., 1999; U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Rigorously evaluating this hypothesized causal relation necessitates covariate adjustment for confounds that themselves may explain racial disparities in disability identification. Examples of potential confounding risk factors include disparities in the incidence of very low birthweight (Grunau, Whitfield, & Davis, 2002), prenatal exposure to alcohol or lead (Goodlad, Marcus, & Fulton, 2013; O'Connor & Paley, 2009), and experiencing multiple risk factors in early childhood (Shaw, Owens, Giovannelli, & Winslow, 2001). For example, being born with very low birth-weight is associated with impaired brain growth, resulting in lower cognitive and executive functioning. Maternal smoking and substance abuse during pregnancy have been linked to lower inhibitory control (Galera et al., 2011), generalized cognitive deficits (Kodituwakku, 2009), and disability-symptomatic behavior (Stevens, Nash, Koren, & Rovet, 2012). …

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