NASP Communiqué, Vol. 38, #1
Confronting Inequity in Special Education, Part I: Understanding the Problem
By Amanda L. Sullivan, Elizabeth A'Vant, John Baker, Daphne Chandler, Scott Graves, Edward McKinney, & Tremaine Sayles
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.
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
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
- 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
- inequitable resource allocation and funding appropriations that favor special
education identification; and
- structural inequities, racism, and systemic bias that disadvantage students who
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.
The NASP website provides numerous resources for culturally competent practice, including several specifically about the issue of disproportionality.
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,
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,
National Association of School Psychologists.
(2009). Appropriate academic supports to
meet the needs of all students. Bethesda, MD:
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,
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
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.