Disproportionality Researching the Overrepresentation of Minority Students in Special Education

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This paper focuses on the overrepresentation or over-identification of minority students found in special education in our schools. I chose to research this topic because being an immigrant myself, I can relate to the education experience of a student who is new to the American school system.

Debates on the overrepresentation of minority students, particularly African- Americans and Hispanics are not new in special education and have characterized research in this field for over three decades. Regardless of time, legislative debate and a great amount of research theories, this problem remains. “In general, research has supported the public concern but the picture is unclear because studies have varied so much with respect to definitions of minority representation in findings across ethnic groups and technical methods (Coutinho & Oswald, 1999, p. 66). It is on the definition of minorities, the methods used to calculate date and the identification of minority students that most studies focus in an attempt to address this overrepresentation. In other words, there are so many variables that come into play that even the most thorough research cannot possibly address them all. The main purpose of this paper is to identify the concept of overrepresentation, discuss the factors that cause it and recommend strategies to address it.

The Nature of the Problem

There is an assumption about overrepresentation among all minority groups and that is that when represented accurately, the proportion of different ethnic groups in a category or program should be equal to the proportion of the same group in the general school population. When an ethnic group features two disproportionate groups in the school population, whether it is on a district, state or national scale, overrepresentation occurs. Oswald, Coutinho, Best and Singh (1999) defined overrepresentation as “the extent to which membership in a given ethnic group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category” (p. 198). In addition to this, MacMillan and Reschly (1998), indicated that it is important to note that ethnic proportions in clearly biological determined disability categories (blind or deaf) and in those cases of mental retardation considered severe and profound do not yield dramatic deviations from proportions that one would expect.

Taking this definition into consideration, data has shown that the proportion of minority students in the special education system has varied over the past few decades. African- American children were 2.3 times more likely to be identified by their teachers as having mental retardation than their white counterparts. The overall proportion of black students in districts sampled were 25.8% in 1980 and 16% in 1990. However, in 1990, 21% of students were receiving special education services. This shows that a disproportionate amount of African- American children were being served in special education (Oswald et al., 1999). While African- American and Hispanic children make up the most misrepresented category, other ethnic groups are also disproportionately represented. The percentages of students with disabilities included in general education classrooms are also disproportionate. Statistics from the New York state education department show that more than 56% of White children and 51% of Asian children are fully included, only 44% of Hispanic and 40% of Black disabled students are similarly integrated (What Works in Teaching and Learning, 2002). African- American males are overrepresented in special education categories and typically receive services in segregated classrooms or buildings (Patton, 1999).

Disproportionate data for minority children’s placements in special education has been studied for over three decades and the same issues seem to reappear in most cases when accounting for this phenomenon. Lloyd Dunn was one of the first researchers to call national...
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