New study challenges previous research about special education students

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A national study by Southern California and Pennsylvania researchers is raising questions about previous reports that identify which students end up in special education.

Earlier research that looked at students nationwide suggest minorities are more likely to be placed in special ed programs compared to white students.

George Farkas, an education researcher at the University of California, Irvine, said that's not the case, at least not nationally. Countrywide, minority groups are less likely to be placed in special ed and less likely to be diagnosed with a disability than otherwise identical white students, he said. 

The findings were published in the current issue of Educational Researcher

California differs from what researchers found nationally. In this state, the numbers match the common view, and prior studies, that minorities make up the majority of special ed students.

The largest group students served by California special education programs are those in the “specific learning disability” category, which includes students with problems speaking, reading, writing or doing math, state data shows. Hispanic students make up 65 percent of students in this category while African-American students make up 10 percent of the group.

Both Hispanic and African-American children are overrepresented in comparison to their numbers in the general student population — and that could pose a problem for the state.

Overrepresentation of minority groups is a concern of many, from policymakers in Washington, D.C., to local school principals. They question if minority students are too often labeled as needing special education, which could take them out of mainstream classes and deny them a normal track through school and onto college.

But the study by Farkas and his colleagues challenges whether there is indeed minority overrepresentation in special education nationally.

“African-American kids, and in fact other minority groups, are less likely to be placed in special education and less likely to be diagnosed with a disability than otherwise identical white students,” he said. “Otherwise identical” is the key. 

For example, a white student would typically be enrolled in a higher performing school. So if he is performing in the lowest third of the class, that would trigger special ed services.

A black or Latino student, Farkas said, would typically be enrolled in a lower-performing school where scoring in the lowest third on test scores may be more of the norm. Those students wouldn’t stand out for special education services as readily. The result: more white students than minority students receiving special ed services.

“I think this is ground-breaking research,” said Carl Cohn, former Long Beach Unified superintendent who chairs the Statewide Special Education Task Force. If minority students are underrepresented in special education as the study suggests, Cohn said it would compel school administrators to shift their thinking and more readily give those students special education services.

The study comes as the federal government is considering a limit on the number of minority students in special ed classes when they are overrepresented compared to the general student population. 

“Our findings indicate that federal legislation and policies currently designed to reduce minority over-representation in special education may be misdirected,” said study co-author Paul Morgan of Pennsylvania State University in a news release.

“These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation’s education inequities by limiting minority children’s access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled.”

For California and other states, such limits could have serious impact if they lead to fewer minority students receiving special education services that they need.

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