Are Minority Students Under- or Overrepresented in Special Education?

By Cohen, Daniel R.; Burns, Matthew K. et al. | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Are Minority Students Under- or Overrepresented in Special Education?


Cohen, Daniel R., Burns, Matthew K., Riley-Tillman, Christopher, Hosp, John L., National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Recently, in a New York Times op-ed entitled "Is Special Education Racist?" Morgan and Farkas (2015) confront conventional wisdom that there are too many minority students in special education, stating "The real problem is that Black children are underrepresented in special-education classes when compared with White children with similar levels of academic achievement, behavior, and family economic resources" (p. 1). They made this bold statement because on the same day, they published an article in the journal Educational Researcher (Morgan et al., 2015) with data that they interpreted to indicate that there are not enough minority students in special education. In translating their findings to policy recommendations, they that note that:

For policymakers, our results suggest that current federal educational legislation and policymaking designed to minimize overidentification of minorities in special education may be misdirected (Government Accountability Office, 2013; U.S. Department of Education, 2014), including the reallocation of Part B funding to early intervening services designed to reduce minority overrepresentation in special education. (p. 288)

How could they have come to this conclusion given five decades of research to the contrary? The disproportionate representation of minority students in special education programs was first identified by Lloyd Dunn in 1968, and the patterns and proportions have been fairly robust ever since with some variation among racial/ethnic groups, disability categories, and location at the state or district level. The purpose of this paper is to summarize the findings of this and previous research, to discuss the methods used to reach the conclusion, and to outline implications for school psychologists.

summarY Of research fiNdiNgs

Morgan et al. (2015) used hazard modeling, a statistical technique within a category of methods referred to as survival analysis, which is well established in the field of medicine, but uncommonly used by educational researchers. Survival analysis has many advantages over other methods such as logistic regression because it does a better job of accounting for time. Moreover, survival analysis controls for censoring, which refers to the fact that although we can know whether or not a student received a special education diagnosis during the study period, we cannot know whether they received a diagnosis afterwards or if they dropped out. These two advantages allow researchers to analyze time-series data with greater precision and less bias.

Similar to other regression methods, survival analysis allows for the introduction of additional variables into the model (covariates) in order to control for them and estimate their individual effect on the outcome. In this study, the authors constructed two models in which ethnic/racial category was the independent variable and diagnoses of one of the five most common educational disabilities were the dependent or outcome variables. Model 1 included no additional variables, such that other factors theorized to influence disability labeling were not accounted for, and reported results in a relative risk ratio, which is the likelihood that a group of students would be diagnosed with a disability as compared to the comparison group (i.e., White students). For example, a risk ratio of 2.0 suggests that students in that particular group would be twice as likely to be diagnosed with a disability as White students.

The findings associated with model 1 indicated that a higher proportion of African American students had been identified as both intellectually disabled (ID) and emotionally disturbed (ED), with risk ratios of 1.49 and 1.17 respectively. In the categories of learning disabled (LD), speech and language impairments (SLI), and health impairments (HI), compared to White students, Black students had a lower proportion in special education than their White counterparts with respective risk ratios of 0. …

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Are Minority Students Under- or Overrepresented in Special Education?
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