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Meeting the Mandates of IDEA 97: Minority Overrepresentation and School Discipline

The disproportionate representation of minority students in special education has been an important and persistent topic almost since the inception of special education1. In an attempt to assess and remediate the problem, the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 97) mandated new state reporting requirements concerning minority enrollment in special education and the suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities. These new requirements make the issue of overrepresentation and school discipline a very practical issue for state departments of education. How should disproportionality be measured? What constitutes disproportionality? Is there disproportionality of special education students in school discipline? When disparities in enrollment or discipline are found, what does it mean, and how should it be remediated?

Previous studies describing disproportionality have been inconsistent in the use of measures, both across and even within studies 2. Further, while various criteria such as a 10% or 20% cutoff, z-scores, or chi-square have been used to assess the extent of disproportionality, it is rare that any sort of rationale is offered for the choice of criterion.

If disproportionate representation is found, the next important question becomes the interpretation of those disparities: What are the implications when disproportionality is shown? For instance, when evidence of minority overrepresentation in special education service is found, it is common to blame test bias. Yet over 25 years of research on test bias has failed to find sources of bias sufficient to account for the black-white test score gap, or minority overrepresentation3. Finally, the discipline of students with disabilities has become something of a political hot potato. General education administrators often believe that IDEA 97 ties their hands on school discipline. Yet the data show that, if anything, students with disabilities are overrepresented in school suspension4. These broader questions of interpretation may pose some difficulty for state divisions of special education charged with monitoring special education disproportionality:

This past year, the Indiana Education Policy Center began work with the Division of Special Education to address questions regarding the measurement and interpretation of data regarding minority overrepresentation in special education, and the discipline of students with disabilities. In particular, the project attempted to develop a non-arbitrary statistical criterion for assessing disproportionate representation that is both statistically accurate and meaningful to policymakers. This year, the project will continue analyses of a statewide special education data base to further address questions of how best to measure and remediate minority overrepresentation and disciplinary disparities in special education. First, analyses of minority disproportionality in special education begun this past year will be replicated and extended using the most current data base. Second, analyses will be conducted of the extent to which students with disabilities are overrepresented in the use of school suspension and expulsion. Finally, Policy Center staff will work with Division staff to provide a national context for interpreting disproportionality data, and consult with the Division to develop practical recommendations for remediation when disproportionality is found.


Context of Minority Disproportionality: Local Perspectives on Special Education Referral

Documentation on the disproportionality of culturally diverse students in special education has been extensive, yet our knowledge of what causes disproportionality and how to address it is limited. This report describes an intensive study undertaken across 14 schools within seven Indiana school corporations to improve our understanding of the factors which may contribute to the disproportionate referral and placement of minority students in special education. We interviewed 66 educators-teachers, principals, schools psychologists and special education directors-about their perspectives on the challenges faced in urban education, the process of special education, available and needed resources, and the specific topics of disproportionality and diversity.


Disproportionality and Discipline Among Indiana's Students With Disabilities: A Status Report

Disproportionate representation of minorities in special education has been and continues to be a central concern for the field. Although the presence of minority overrepresentation has been well documented, it is fair to say that the full complexity of the problem has not yet been fully understood, nor is there a clear picture of the causes of disproportionality. This report is the second phase of a study conducted by the Indiana Education Policy Center for the Indiana Department of Education Division of Special Education on the status of minority disproportionality in special education in Indiana, and on the disciplinary provisions of IDEA 97.


Minority Overrepresentation in Indiana's Special Education Programs: A Status Report

The overrepresentation of minority children is among the most persistent and unresolved problems in the special education. In response to this problem, the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 97) mandated new state reporting requirements concerning minority enrollment in special education and the suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities. These new requirements make the issue of overrepresentation and school discipline a very practical issue for state departments of education. Is there disproportionate representation of minorities in special education in Indiana? If so, in which categories or placement? Are there measures that will allow the Indiana Department of Education to accurately identify planning districts exhibiting disproportionality?

To address these questions, data from Indiana’s 66 special education planning districts from the 1998-1999 school year were analyzed, attempting to identify a set of defensible measures of minority disproportionality. Part I of the study focused on statewide disproportionality data, including both overall special education enrollment ant in specific disability categories and placements. Part II focused more specifically on African American disproportionality, using a set of validated criteria to identify districts that show the most consistent evidence of problems with disproportionality.


When is Disproportionality Discrimination?: The Color of Discipline

The two-year expulsion of seven black students in Decatur, Illinois in the fall of 2000 for a football game brawl has brought the issue of unequal discipline to national attention. Although the suit brought by the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH on behalf of those students was turned back in federal court, inequities in the application of school suspension and expulsion have begun to be widely documented. A series of reports since that incident have documented the overrepresentation of African American students in rates of office referral, school suspension and school expulsion5).

Yet the unequal treatment of African American students in school discipline is by no means a new issue. Rates of school punishment for black students that exceed rates for white students have been documented for over 25 years. Nor does the problem appear to be lessening; recent research reports continue to find disparities in discipline in office referrals, suspension, expulsion, and corporal punishment6. There can be little doubt that African American students are in general subjected to higher rates of school suspension and other school punishments than other students.

But does minority disproportionality represent racial discrimination? That is both the central question, and the most difficult to answer. Some have suggested that since African Americans are overrepresented in lower economic backgrounds, perhaps differences in discipline are not an issue of race, but rather an issue of social or economic class. Or perhaps black students misbehave more, forcing teachers to respond with greater rates of disciplinary consequences. If these explanations hold up, then disproportionate rates of school discipline probably do not represent racial discrimination or bias. On the other hand, if these alternate hypotheses are not sufficient to explain away findings of disproportionality, then it becomes more likely that disproportionate treatment is a sign of some form of racial discrimination.

This spring, the Indiana Education Policy Center released a study by Dr. Russell Skiba and his colleagues exploring possible reasons for disproportionality in school discipline. The research won an award from Operation PUSH, the Push for Excellence Award, for its contribution to advancing the cause of civil rights. The paper, downloadable below, and available in hard copy from the Policy Center (see Contact Us), explores the disproportionate discipline of African American students. How extensive is the unequal treatment of black students in school discipline? Where does it come from? Can it be explained away by economic status or amount of misbehavior?


Last updated: February 12, 2004
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