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
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
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
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-
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, and are thus ill-suited to prepare students
for the exams. …