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Multicultural Affairs

Confronting Inequity in Special Education, Part I: Understanding the Problem of Disproportionality

By Amanda L. Sullivan, Elizabeth A'Vant, John Baker, Daphne Chandler, Scott Graves, Edward McKinney, & Tremaine Sayles

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This article is one in a series developed by NASP's African American Subcommittee for school psychologists and other educators working with culturally and linguistically diverse student populations. In this article, part one of two addressing disproportionality, the subcommittee presents an overview of the problem of disproportionate representation of Black students in special education. In next month's edition, part two will provide school psychologists with promising practices in addressing disproportionality and supporting equity in schools. The authors acknowledge the support of the African American Subcommittee, under NASP's Multicultural Affairs Committee, for their insightful discussions on the article topic, as well as for the group's professional allegiance.

One of the most persistent and controversial issues in education is the overrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students identified as disabled in schools. The term "culturally and linguistically diverse" is used to refer to students from racial/ethnic minority groups and linguistic minority groups. Throughout this paper, we compare CLD students to their mainstream White peers, while acknowledging the inherent limitations of any term used to describe these groups, as they fail to capture the vast diversity both within and between groups (e.g., see Chandler, A'Vant, & Graves, 2008).

Even before special education was formally codified in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (P.L. 94-142, now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act), students of color, as well as those from immigrant or economically disadvantaged households, were overrepresented in classrooms for students considered cognitively impaired (Dunn, 1968). Today, troubling patterns of racial disparities in special education identification, placement, and outcomes continue. In this article, we frame the problem of disproportionality for school psychologists from a sociohistorical lens.

What Is Disproportionality?

Disproportionality is an issue of equity and access in general and special education. It refers to "the extent to which membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category" (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999, p. 198). As Figure 1 shows, nationally, Black students, particularly those identified as mentally retarded or emotionally disabled, have been consistently overrepresented for more than 3 decades. Native American students are also persistently overrepresented in special education nationally, and while the same is not true for Latino students, they are often overrepresented at the state and district levels where their enrollment is highest.

Disproportionality Figure

Special education identification patterns vary both between and within states. For instance, risk for Black students identified as mentally retarded is more than 14 times that of their White peers in some states while risk is nearly equivalent in others. Not only does disproportionality occur in special education identification, but in placement as well. Students identified as CLD are generally less likely to spend the majority of their time in general education and are more likely to be served in separate schools or facilities than their White peers (Sullivan, Kozleski, & Smith, 2008). National data on Black students are especially disconcerting because they reveal that Black students are not only at greater risk for identification, but also for restrictive placements and disciplinary consequences. A valuable tool for examining disproportionality data for racial minority students is Data Maps, found at www.nccrest.org, where users can examine national and city reports on identification and placement based on census data and data from the U.S. Department of Education. Such depictions can provide a useful starting point in discussions of disproportionality.

What We Know About the Causes of Disproportionality

The disproportionality literature tends to focus on the disability categories of mental retardation, learning disabilities, and emotional disabilities, as these are the high-incidence disabilities and constitute over 63% of students eligible for special education (U.S. Department of Education [USDOE], 2009). These are also widely regarded as "judgmental" categories because of relatively vague federal and state disability definitions that necessitate a high degree of professional judgment in making normative comparisons to determine eligibility (Klingner et al., 2005). This has led many to question the validity of these diagnoses as true disabilities and the likelihood of misidentification, particularly in light of the wide variation in identification rates across states and districts. In contrast, diagnoses in the low-incidence categories are rarely challenged because of their physical/medical bases, and because disproportionality is not generally observed in these categories. Disproportionality appears to be a complex phenomenon influenced by a number of factors which differ from group to group and may vary from one context to another (Skiba et al., 2008). The literature has examined a number of factors that may potentially contribute to the disproportionate representation of CLD students in special education, including:

  • differences in school readiness, ability, and academic achievement among student groups;
  • bias in referral, assessment, or placement practices;
  • interpersonal bias, lowered expectations, and misinterpretation/pathologization of behaviors of students who are CLD;
  • inequitable opportunities to learn because of academic tracking, limited and/or poorer quality curriculum and instruction, and teachers with fewer years of experience and limited qualifications;
  • lack of culturally responsive curricula, instruction, and intervention that adequately represent the experiences, contributions, and assets of diverse groups;
  • insufficient professional training to work effectively with diverse students;
  • system characteristics that limit family and community involvement in education;
  • inequitable resource allocation and funding appropriations that favor special education identification; and
  • structural inequities, racism, and systemic bias that disadvantage students who are CLD.

The research supporting these various contributing factors is equivocal. It is the position of the authors that we must move beyond deficit-based explanations to consider the sociocultural and historical factors that contribute to educational inequity and disparate treatment and outcomes, including special education disproportionality. Most notably, we must acknowledge that race and educational opportunity are closely linked such that certain students experience systemic privilege over others; poverty is an insufficient justification for the pervasive overrepresentation of CLD students, particularly African Americans, in special education (Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azziz, & Chung, 2005).

Why Is Disproportionality a Problem?

The disproportionate representation of CLD students in special education is just one element of a constellation of inequities that influence individuals' access to educational opportunities on the basis of race. For special education, a field built upon the principle of fairness, formed in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, and grounded in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement (Blanchett, 2006), disproportionality represents a significant dilemma as it indicates systemic problems of inequity, discrimination, and marginalization within education. Schools are social institutions in which the power structures of the larger society are reproduced; where inequity in other institutions (e.g., economics and healthcare) affect student characteristics, behavior, and performance; and where disparities in a number of educational domains (e.g., resource availability, instructional quality, discipline) produce inequitable opportunities to learn. When children do not receive opportunities to learn, their academic achievement is negatively affected and they are placed at risk for special education identification (Skiba et al., 2008). Examination of a broad range of educational data makes clear that a number of disparities in educational opportunity disadvantages students identified as CLD and points to pervasive systemic inequity in all domains of education (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002; Brayboy, Castagno, & Maughan, 2007).

Many recognize that special education often does not lead to high-quality educational opportunities, or even positive outcomes, despite the resources and support it provides. There is also concern because CLD students, particularly those identified as Black, make fewer academic gains and are less likely to exit special education than their White peers (Blanchett, 2006). In addition, overrepresented groups are disproportionately affected by negative consequences associated with special education labeling and placement, including stigmatization, lowered expectations, substandard instruction, and less rigorous curriculum, as well as isolation from the educational and social curriculum of general education. Long-term consequences include lower rates of graduation, employment, independent living, and secondary education, as well as lower wages and higher arrest rates compared to nondisabled peers and disabled White peers (Affleck, Edgar, Levine, & Kortering, 1990; Losen & Wellner, 2001).

Nonetheless, the question of whether disproportionality constitutes a real problem has been heavily debated. Some scholars have argued that because special education eligibility results in additional services and supports, special education identification is a benefit. Still others assert that if bias or inappropriate practices are present at any stage in the general or special education processes that lead to labeling and placement, disproportionality must be considered problematic (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982; Klingner et al., 2005). Thus, to many, special education represents a "double-edged sword" because it ensures access for children who were traditionally excluded from public education but simultaneously serves to marginalize students from the general education environment. Others contend that the mere presence of over- or underrepresentation indicates that the educational needs of students are going unmet by the educational system (Bollmer, Bethel, Garrison-Mogren, & Brauen, 2007).

Because school psychology is concerned with equal access for all children (NASP, 2009), disproportionality in special education is a cause for concern. NASP (2004) holds that discrimination is harmful to children in that it negatively impacts well-being and educational achievement. Review of the literature and national placement data illustrate that some students are at risk of being misclassified, denied access to general education, and receiving inappropriate services. Disproportionality is a complex problem, so addressing it will entail complex solutions. While we recognize the need for systems change to remediate pervasive inequity, we also acknowledge the power of practitioners' everyday actions in creating opportunities and academic supports, fostering inclusive environments, and improving the lives of children. We have a legal and ethical duty to ensure that students are not misidentified for special education and to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to succeed. In Part 2 of this series we will address promising practices for reducing disproportionality, emphasizing how practitioners can contribute to preventing inequity in special education.

NASP Resources

The NASP website provides numerous resources for culturally competent practice, including several specifically about the issue of disproportionality.

Other Resources

Equity Alliance at ASU, www.equityallianceatasu.org

National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, www.nccrest.org

National Education Association. (2007). Truth in labeling. Washington, DC: Author.


Affleck, J. Q., Edgar, E., Levine, P., & Kortering, L. (1990). Post-school status of students classified as mildly mentally retarded, learning disabled or non-handicapped: Does it get better with time? Education and Training in Mental Retardation, 25(4), 315–324.

Artiles, A. J., & Ortiz, A. (Eds.). (2002). English language learners with special needs: Identification, placement, and instruction. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Blanchett, W. (2006). Disproportionate representation of African American students in special education: Acknowledging the role of White privilege and racism. Educational Researcher, 35(6), 24–28.

Bollmer, J., Bethel, J., Garrison-Mogren, R., & Brauen, M. (2007). Using the risk ratio to assess racial/ethnic disproportionality in special education at the school-district level. Journal of Special Education, 41(3), 186–198.

Brayboy, B. M. J., Castagno, A. E., & Maughan, E. (2007). Equality and justice for all? Examining race in education scholarship. Review of Research in Education, 31, 159–194. Chandler, D., A'Vant, E. R., & Graves, S. L. (2008). Effective communication with Black families and students. Communiqué, 37, Special Pull-out Section, 1–3.

Donovan, M. S., & Cross, C. T. (Eds.). (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Dunn, L. M. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded: Is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 35(1), 5–22.

Heller, K. A., Holtzman, W. H., & Messick, S. (Eds.). (1982). Placing children in special education: A strategy for equity. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Klingner, J. K., Artiles, A. J., Kozleski, E., Harry, B., Zion, S., Tate, W., et al. (2005). Addressing the disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education through culturally responsive educational systems. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(38). Retrieved December 14, 2005, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v13n38

Losen, D., & Welner, K. (2001). Disabling discrimination in our public schools: Comprehensive legal challenges to inappropriate and inadequate special education services for minority students. Civil Liberties Law Review, 36(2), 407–260.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2009). Appropriate academic supports to meet the needs of all students. Bethesda, MD: Author.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2004). Racism, prejudice and discrimination. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Oswald, D. P., Coutinho, M. J., Best, A. M., & Singh, N. N. (1999). Ethnic representation in special education: The influence of schoolrelated economic and demographic variables. The Journal of Special Education, 32(1), 194–206.

Skiba, R. J., Poloni-Staudinger, L., Simmons, A. B., Feggins-Azziz, R., & Chung, C. (2005). Unproven links: Can poverty explain ethnic disproportionality in special education? Journal of Special Education, 39(3), 130–144.

Skiba, R. J., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Gibb, A. C., Rauch, M. K., Cuadrado, J., et al. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: History, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 264–288.

Sullivan, A., Kozleski, E. B., & Smith, A. (2008, December). Deconstructing LRE: What it means, where we are, and creating continua of supports. Presentation at the TASH 2008, Nashville, TN.

U.S. Department of Education. (2009). 28th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2006. Washington, D.C.: Office of Special Education Programs.

Amanda Sullivan, PhD, is the codirector of research evaluation of the Equity Alliance at ASU and acknowledges support under grant # S004D080027 awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. Endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of the ideas expressed in this article should not be inferred. Elizabeth Rose A'Vant is a practitioner and Lead School Psychologist in the Providence (RI) Public School District. She is cochair of the NASP Multicultural Affairs Committee. John Baker, PhD, NCSP, is a practitioner in the Prince George's County (MD) Public School System. He is chair of the Multicultural Affairs Committee of the Maryland School Psychologists Association and an adjunct faculty member in the school psychology program at Bowie State University. Daphne R. Chandler is a dissertator in UW-Madison's school psychology program. She currently serves as national coordinator of NASP's CLD Ambassadors of Recruitment Program. Scott Graves, PhD, NCSP, is an assistant professor of school psychology at Bowling Green State University (OH). Edward McKinney is a school psychologist from the Metro-Davidson Nashville School District in Nashville, TN. Tremaine Sayles is a fifth year doctoral candidate at the St. John's University school psychology program. He is a school psychologist at the SJU Center for Psychological Services School Affiliate program and a licensed social worker.