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Reducing the Disproportionate Representation
of Minority Students in
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC/OSEP Digest #E566
Author: Jane Burnette
Students from some racial and ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be
in special education programs and classes. For example, in 1992, Black students
accounted for 16 percent
of the total U.S. student population, but represented 32% of students in programs for
mild mental retardation
(MMR), 29% in programs for moderate mental retardation, and 24% in programs for
disturbance (SED) (Robertson, Kushner, Starks, & Drescher, 1994). To a lesser extent,
some groups of
students are underrepresented in special education and overrepresented in programs
for gifted and talented
students. Such disproportionate representation of minority groups is an ongoing national
problem. This digest
concerns the overrepresentation of minority students in special education.
The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the U.S. Office for
Civil Rights (OCR) have
three concerns about disproportionate representation:
- Students may be unserved or receive services that do not meet their needs.
- Students may be misclassified or inappropriately labeled.
- Placement in special education classes may be a form of discrimination.
Reducing disproportionate representation is a high priority for both offices and for
many groups and
associations that represent ethnic minorities and/or special education.
What Can Be Done To Reduce Overrepresentation?
Overrepresentation is a complex problem, and reducing it calls for pervasive
overrepresentation is a matter of creating a successful school environment for all
students and accurately
distinguishing disabilities from cultural differences. An ecological approach that
recognizes the influence of
the learning environment on the process of teaching and learning is critical. It is
important to appreciate that
the risk of low academic performance and challenging behaviors does not reside solely
within the child or
family--instructional, classroom and school variables can and do contribute to academic
Suggestions to reduce disproportionate representation are presented below and in the
- Develop a district-wide vision for the education of all students.
- Review traditional school practices to identify and address factors that may
contribute to student
- Redefine staff roles to support a shared responsibility for all students.
- Form policy-making bodies that include community members, and promote
partnerships with service
agencies and cultural organizations.
- Help families get social, medical, mental health and other support services.
Develop supports such as
early childhood and at-risk programs, and offer an array of services to the community.
- Recruit and retain educators who have had course work and experience with
diverse student populations
and who are from diverse backgrounds.
Promote Family Involvement
Although involving parents and families is key to raising academic achievement for
students from minority
backgrounds, schools have often been unsuccessful in achieving high levels of
participation from low-income
and bilingual parents. These parents may have had negative experiences in school and
may be reluctant to
meet with educators, or they may have little formal education and feel unqualified to
contribute. If they are
asked to make contributions for which they don't feel qualified, their negative feelings
may be exacerbated.
Schools that have raised the achievement of minority students tend to be those in which
parents and family
members participate in a variety of roles, including shared governance. Suggestions for
- Identify and address obstacles to parent participation.
Offer school staff comp-time for facilitating parent
availability for meetings.
- Provide options for involvement that are matched to families'
motivations, interests and abilities and make
sure that families are aware of the many ways they can support
the education of their children.
- Ensure that the school is welcoming, staff are accessible, and
staff understand and respect diverse family
networks and child rearing traditions.
- Include family members beyond the nuclear family who are
involved in daily child rearing.
- Make parents and families aware of the roles and
responsibilities expected of them in the school--these
may differ from their roles and responsibilities in their own
- Support parent-to-parent advocacy such as Title I liaison
- Communicate in ways that convey respect and appreciation for
- Translate documents for families who do not communicate
easily in English.
Make the General Education Classroom Conducive to Success for All
Educators need to be aware of the cultural influences on behavior. They may need
training to develop their
knowledge of cultural beliefs, values, behaviors and expectations, as well as their own
attitudes, values and
perspectives toward diversity. They should know how to use cross-cultural
communication skills with
students, families and community members and be able to develop, evaluate, and use
For most children referred for evaluation, academic failure is
related to problems in learning to read. It
is crucial to emphasize reading and to have a strong array of alternate instructional
strategies to address
reading difficulties. Curricula should incorporate students' cultural backgrounds, be
relevant to their lives, and
build on their experiences.
When a student's English proficiency is limited, it may be
difficult for a teacher to tell if academic problems
are due to a disability or a language difference. In such cases, the teacher must
informally assess the
student's English language proficiency. Enhancing traditional tests with other
assessments such as classroom
observations and performance measures can provide the information needed to
develop appropriate lessons
or identify alternative teaching strategies. Other strategies to support minority children
- Teach students how to study and how to learn, as well as
skills and cross-cultural understanding.
- Create active learning experiences that allow children to learn
their own styles and according to their
- Use pre-referral strategies in general education. Document the
strategies used and their results.
- Provide training in alternative instruction and materials and in
distinguishing the characteristics of a
disability from characteristics that reflect cultural differences.
- Use joint problem-solving to extend each teacher's repertoire
instructional strategies and provide
multiple perspectives on a student's difficulties. Problem-solving
should not be the sole responsibility of
special education personnel.
Increase the Accuracy of Referral and Evaluation
A clear referral system, including specific criteria, implementation procedures, and
evaluation procedures, is
essential to appropriate referrals. The process should rule out other factors that might
contribute to behavioral
and academic difficulties. It should substantiate that the student's academic or
behavioral problem is
consistent and pervasive and reflects a disability rather than a cultural difference, lack of
proficiency, or economic disadvantage. Documentation of pre-referral efforts and their
accompany the referral to aid in interpreting assessment results and planning effective
Multiple assessment measures and a broad base of student
are essential to a valid determination
of eligibility and placement. Over-reliance on IQ scores is inconsistent with IDEA and
Section 504 and contrary
to sound educational practices. When used in conjunction with more formal
assessments have the potential to provide information that helps to distinguish
differences from disabilities.
Overall, information should be available about the student's total environment (school,
home, community, peer
groups) and his or her ability to learn in each of these sub-environments.
The following recommendations also help to increase the accuracy of referral and
- Ensure that the staff knows requirements and criteria for
and is kept abreast of current research
affecting the process.
- Check that the student's general education program uses
instructional strategies appropriate for the
individual, has been adjusted to address the student's area of
difficulty, includes ongoing communication
with the student's family, and reflects a culturally responsive
- Involve families in the decision to refer to special education in
ways that are sensitive to the family's
- Use only tests and procedures that
technically acceptable and culturally and linguistically appropriate.
- Testing personnel should have had training in conducting
particular assessments and interpreting the
results in a culturally responsive manner.
- Personnel who understand how racial, ethnic and other
influence student performance should be
included in the eligibility decision.
- When eligibility is first established, a set of firm standards for
student's progress and readiness to exit
special education should be recorded.
Provide Appropriate Special Education Services
Special education is not a place, but an array of services to support the student's
progress. The services
provided to a student should be an outgrowth of the assessment process, which reflects
the student's unique
background. All of this should be reflected in the student's individualized educational
By law, services must be provided in the least restrictive
environment. Students with disabilities may not
be removed from the general education classroom and placed in separate special
education settings unless
it has been explicitly determined that the general education setting is not appropriate to
educational needs, even with supplemental aids and services. A unified system that
includes general and
special education, with more services provided in the general education classroom, can
Monitor the Provision of Services
States and districts should continuously monitor referral and enrollment data by
disability, gender, age, and socioeconomic status. The 1997 amendments to IDEA
require states to collect
and report data on race and ethnicity along with data on disabilities. As well as giving
the state or district
needed data on their student demographics, this provides the data to assess efforts to
Federal Activities to Reduce Overrepresentation
OSEP and OCR continue to address disproportionate representation as a priority.
OSEP funds important
research and technical assistance activities that provide insight into the issues and
strategies to resolve these
concerns. This research has played a critical role in advancing the knowledge and
understanding about how
to address the multiple, complex issues concerning minorities and special education.
OCR has designated
minority students in special education as a priority enforcement issue. Both OSEP and
OCR are developing
and disseminating resource materials to help prevent and correct disproportionate
This digest is based, in large part, on a report prepared by Project FORUM at the
National Association of State
Directors of Special Education (Markowitz, Garcia & Eichelberger, 1997). Project
FORUM, funded by OSEP,
worked closely with staff from OCR during the development of the report.
Artiles, A. & Zamora-Duran, G. (1997). Reducing the disproportionate
students in special and gifted education. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional
Grossman, H. (1998). Ending discrimination in special education. Springfield, IL:
Charles C. Thomas
Harry, B. (1994, August). The disproportionate representation of minority students in
Theories and recommendations. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors
of Special Education.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED374637.)
Markowitz, J., Garcia, S. B. & Eichelberger, J. (1997, March). Addressing the
of students from racial and ethnic minority groups in special education: A resource
document. Alexandria, VA:
National Association of State Directors of Special Education. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED
Robertson, P. & Kushner, M. With Starks, J. & Drescher, C. (1994). An update of
participation of culturally and
linguistically diverse students in special education: The need for a research and policy
agenda. The Bilingual
Special Education Perspective, 14(1), 3-9.
U.S. Department of Education (1997). Nineteenth annual report to Congress on the
Implementation of the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Available from U.S. Office of Special
ERIC/OSEP Digests are in the public domain and may
be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This
publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of
Special Education Programs, under Contract No. RI93002005. The opinions expressed
in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OSEP or the
Department of Education.
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