Overrepresentation of minority students in special education

It’s always the patterns that grasp our attention the most. Whenever something happens too frequently, in an unexplained manner, that’s when we begin to question it. In 1968, Lloyd Dunn was among the first to realize that there was a disproportionate number of minority students in special education classrooms. A couple of years later, Evelyn Deno suggested that this was true and was possibly due to a pathological model used to place these students in special education programs. There were too many minority students being labeled mentally retarded. In other words, there was an overrepresentation problem. But is overrepresentation really a problem? Of course it is and for one simple reason: it questions the efficacy of our professional practices, our methods of testing, and our take on honoring diversity.

Over representation of minority students in special education classes is definitely a problem, but does that means special education programs are a bad thing? Of course not. Before special education, students who came from poverty, broken and inadequate homes, or low status ethnic groups were deemed “socioeconomically deprived” and were denied access to education altogether. After a while, schools were forced to teach them by law, but it became a sort of reluctant agreement: we’ll teach you, but you’ll be placed in special education classes. In fact, according to Dunn, about 60-80% of special education students with mental retardation came from “low status background” which mainly meant they were Latino, African American or Native American.


Around 1976, the OCR (Office of Civil Rights) in Ohio started collecting data on the educational system. Their result further cemented the idea of overrepresentation. For example, during the period of 1976-1977, black students were placed in EMR (educable mentally retarded) classes 3.4 times as much as white students. That ratio increased even further, to 3.5, when they analyzed the data from 1978-1979. They also found that a lot of limited English proficiency students were placed in special education programs without proper assessment simply because they weren’t good at English. The OCR dug even further, specifically into 148 school districts, over the period of 1975-1979 and came up with even more astonishing results. Some students were being assigned EMR classes without examination for visual/ auditory problems; some based on outdated IQ scores; and some were assigned these classes despite having IQ scores that surpass the EMR range! Simply being a minority student was enough to earn placement in special education classes. In the early 1980s, Wright and Santa Cruz came to similar results of overrepresentation in California. Around 1989, Meier, Stewart and England conducted a large scale study on 174 school districts, each having at least 15000 students with at least 1% of them being African American. They found that African American students were placed in mild mental retardation classes 3 times more than their white counterparts. The racial disproportion was crystal clear.


After a while, researchers decided to try a different approach. Instead of checking special education classes, they decided to analyze the students placed in gifted programs. Unsurprisingly, white students were 3.2 times more likely to be placed in a gifted program than black students. It was truly, as Meier called it, “2nd generation educational discrimination”. And to prove the concept of overrepresentation even further, literature by the Department of Education recorded that out of all the students in general education, about 70% were whites, 12% were African American, and 13% were Latino.


Dunn saw that the root of the overrepresentation problem was that schools were using IQ scores from tests like WISC and Binet to justify labeling minority students as “mentally retarded”. These IQ scores basically determined their fate, although with their ethnic background, their fate was pretty much determined from birth. Deno on the other hand, saw that the problem was due to an overreliance on the medical model. This model had one serious problem: it focused too much on children’s defects. That took the attention away from external factors that might have been easily fixed. After a while, Dunn came up with the suggestion that minority students performed better when grouped with white middle class students. That obviously didn’t make much sense because minority students wouldn’t perform better just by coming in contact with white students, but they would perform better if provided with high quality educational services and resources. That’s why it’s important to focus on the teachers, as well, especially since as Cohen (1982) said, “teachers’ actions are mostly hidden behind classroom doors”.


There are a number of aspects that influence the overrepresentation problem. The first aspect is litigation. Before the passage of public law 94-142 in 1975, litigation was mainly concerned with protecting minority students against unfair placement based on inadequate assessment methods, such as the cases of Diana (1970) and Guadalupe (1972). After 1975, litigation was more concerned with defining mild retardation and the fairness of intelligence tests. A lot of money, time and effort were spent to reevaluate children with mild mental retardation to make sure they weren’t unfairly placed. All these litigation cases made people question a lot of things like what exactly was the definition of mental retardation? What’s “intelligence”? How can the diagnosis of mental retardation be dependent on something like IQ scores if the IQ cutoff point is constantly changing from time to time? Most of these tests weren’t actually measuring intelligence but were in fact, measuring how much of the dominant culture the student had accumulated. That was definitely unfair for students from ethnic backgrounds. Let’s not forget that behaviors differ from one culture to another, so deviant behaviors shouldn’t be perceived as mental retardation.


Perhaps the root of the overrepresentation problem lies within what is called “the disability-cultural diversity analog”. You know how you always couple things together in your mind like bed and sleep, food and drink, and so on? People have subconsciously learned to link cultural diversity to disability. It’s a stereotype that has become so embedded in our thoughts that even some members of minority groups share this preconception. Different ethnicity, race, gender, language or social class shouldn’t equal disability. Unfortunately, that’s what people think.

Alright, so we get it. Overrepresentation is a major problem. What’s the solution? In 1968, Dunn proposed that we make major reforms in our curricula, how we diagnose mental retardation, and the quality of our teacher preparation programs. It was a good suggestion but a few years later, around 1993, there was an even better one. The first step to overcoming the overrepresentation problem was constantly refining our definitions of mental retardation so that diagnosis would be fair. Second of all, people had to understand that school success and failure was a shared responsibility of teachers, students, family and everyone in the educational process. Next, the special education system had to be modified to help prevent some forms of mental retardation; to accurately explain reasons for success/failure; and to train teachers to be more qualified and prepared. Teachers should be able to avoid stereotypical methods of teaching and be able to bring out the best in all children, minority or not. If all of this were implemented, then there wouldn’t be an overrepresentation problem. Children would only get special education if they truly needed it, not just because of their skin color or ethnicity, and that’s how it should always be. We should really think about these reforms because otherwise, 25 years from now, we’ll find ourselves right where we started, at the roots of educational discrimination.