Disparate Access: The Disproportionality of African American Students with Disabilities across Educational Environments

By Skiba, Russell J.; Poloni-Staudinger, Lori et al. | Exceptional Children, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Disparate Access: The Disproportionality of African American Students with Disabilities across Educational Environments


Skiba, Russell J., Poloni-Staudinger, Lori, Gallini, Sarah, Simmons, Ada B., Feggins-Azziz, Renae, Exceptional Children


The overrepresentation of minority students in certain disability categories continues to be one of the most persistent and complex issues in the field of special education, and has received a great deal of attention over the past 20 years (Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Dunn, 1968; Finn, 1982; Harry & Anderson, 1994; Hosp & Reschly, 2002, 2003; Ladner & Hammons, 2001; Losen & Orfield, 2002; National Research Council, NRC, 2002; Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999; Parrish, 2002). Recent national data from the NRC indicate that when compared to European American students, African American students are overrepresented in the categories of mental retardation (MR), emotional disturbance (ED), and multiple disabilities; that American Indian/Alaskan Native students are overrepresented in the category of learning disabilities (LD); and that Asian/Pacific Islander and African American students have slightly higher rates of identification in autism spectrum disorders. Parrish reported that African American students are the most overrepresented group in special education programs in nearly every state, and that disproportionate representation is most pronounced in MR and ED: African American students are 2.88 times more likely than European American students to be labeled as MR and 1.92 times more likely to be identified as ED.

In contrast, far less attention has been paid to disparate representation in educational environments that are more or less restrictive; only a handful of studies have explored disproportionality across educational environments (Fierros & Conroy, 2002; Hosp & Reschly, 2002; Skiba, Wu, Kohler, Chung, & Simmons, 2001). The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) mandates that students with disabilities be served in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that is appropriate for their needs; disproportionality in access to LRE may be more important conceptually than disparities in disability category. The purpose of this study was to explore the disproportionate placement of African American students in more or less restrictive educational environments, and in particular to test the hypothesis that such disparities are due to the influence of certain disability categories.

SERVICE IN THE GENERAL EDUCATION ENVIRONMENT

Over the past 20 years, the field of special education has seen a significant shift in the location of special education service. Seminal works in the 1980s by leaders in the field called for increased service of students in general education settings (Reynolds, Wang, & Walberg, 1987; Will, 1986); and the field has moved increasingly to meet that goal. Currently, IDEA 2004 requires that

 
   to the maximum extent appropriate, children 
   with disabilities ... are educated with children 
   who are not disabled; and special 
   classes, separate schooling, or other removal 
   of children with disabilities from the regular 
   educational environment occurs only when 
   the nature or severity of the disability of a 
   child is such that education in regular classes 
   with the use of supplementary aids and services 
   cannot be achieved satisfactorily. 
   (612(a)(5)(A)) 

Service of students with disabilities in general education settings has increased substantially in the last 15 years. In 1999-2000, 95.9% of students with disabilities were served in general school buildings; of those students, 47.3% were served outside of the general classroom for less than 21% of the school day (McLeskey, Henry, & Axelrod, 1999). The Office of Special Education Program's IDEA Report to Congress (OSEP, 2002) documents a fairly dramatic increase in special education service in general education classrooms: Between the 1990-1991 and 1999-2000 school years, the number of students served outside of the general classroom setting for less than 21% of the day increased 87. …

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