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Bias in Special Education Identification Rarely Flagged by States

A little more than 2 percent of the nation's school districts were flagged by their states as overidentifying minorities for special education, which would require them to spend 15 percent of their federal special education dollars to address the problem through programs aimed primarily at students from kindergarten to 3rd grade.

An advocacy group, mining federal data, found that those 347 districts were in 25 states (out of about 13,600 traditional districts nationwide). A third of them—104—were in just one state: Louisiana. 

The information comes amid conversation from federal officials that a national standard for overidentification is needed.

About 9 percent of the nation's school districts chose voluntarily to use up to 15 percent of their federal funding to address racial and ethnic overidentification. Those 1,243 districts were in 44 states, with the highest number in Illinois: that state had 198 districts voluntarily using their IDEA money for this purpose.

The analysis comes from a report released March 6 from IDEA Money Watch, a watchdog blog run by the Advocacy Institute. The figures, which come from federal data reports, are current as of the 2011-12 school year. The Advocacy Institute report includes the names of all of the districts that were required—or chose—to spend money on early-intervention services, and the amount they used for this purpose.

The Education Department has been mulling whether it needs to create a standard federal definition for "significant disproportionality." Districts that have significantly overidentified minorities in special education are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to use part of their federal special education allocation for "coordinated early intervening services." The idea is that providing support for these young children early in their school career can prevent them from needing special education services later. 

States' Choice

Currently, it's up to states to decide when identification tips the scales into being significant. And, according to a 2013 report from the General Accountabilty Office, many states have made the bar so high that it's unlikely any district would meet their standard. (Louisiana is a notable exception.) 

The GAO report compared Louisiana to Nebraska, one of the states that, at the time of the report, said that none of its districts had significant disproportionality. 

In Nebraska, one of 21 states that did not require any districts to provide services in 2010-11, racial and ethnic groups must be identified for special education at a rate three times higher than for other groups for 2 consecutive years. In contrast, racial and ethnic groups in Louisiana districts must be identified for special education at twice the rate of other students in any year. GAO's analysis found if Nebraska had used Louisiana's definition, Nebraska districts may have been required to provide services and, conversely, Louisiana might have identified fewer districts under Nebraska's definition.

Unsurprisingly, most state education leaders have been cool to the idea of the feds establishing a national standard for overidentification, as I reported last fall. 

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education offered a concern shared by many other districts.

"NASDSE recognizes that the overidentification of minority students in special education is a concern that should be addressed," the group said. "The temptation to address this concern by developing a standard approach is great. ... But, if our nation has learned just one thing since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, it would be that 'one size does not fit all.'" 


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