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Analysis Finds Flaws in Studies of Black Overrepresentation in Special Education

For years, special education policy has focused on making sure minority students are not placed in special education when they don't really have a disability. So when education researchers Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas released research saying that minority students are actually underenrolled in special education compared to their white peers, it created a stir in the field. 

Morgan and Farkas, using a national sample of children called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten, found that for students who demonstrated similar levels of academic achievement and behavior, the minority students were less likely than their white peers to be enrolled in special education.

Some have said those findings were an outlier compared to other special education research. But Morgan and Farkas have examined other studies of black enrollment in special education and found that other researchers were most likely to find black student overrepresentation when those researchers didn't use statistical controls that would make students look similar to one another. 

The analysis, "Are Black Children Disproportionately Overrepresented in Special Education? A Best-Evidence Synthesis," was published this month in the journal Exceptional Children.

Morgan and Farkas looked at 22 studies that compared the enrollment of black students enrolled in special education to white students. To cast a wide net, they included doctoral dissertations in their analysis, as well as studies that had been published in peer-reviewed journals. 

What they found is that studies showed overrepresentation of minorities in special education when those studies did not control for student-level academic information and when they relied on some source of student data that was not nationally representative. But, when studies did create those controls and used national samples, overrepresentation started to shift the other direction—in other words, academically struggling black students were less likely to be enrolled in special education than academically struggling white students.

Some of the studies deemed most rigorous in adjusting for other factors were studies conducted by Morgan and Farkas over the past several years, but not all. For example, the analysis included two doctoral dissertations that looked at the same nationally representative sample of students Morgan and Farkas worked with. One dissertation found that white males are more likely than females and males of any race and ethnicity to receive special education services. The second found that black students are underrepresented compared to white students when it comes to receiving special education over several years of school. 

Drawing Inferences from Special Education Data

Observers are correct that when looking at enrollment numbers alone, black students are enrolled in greater proportion than their peers of other races, Morgan said in an interview.

"It's not that the observation is incorrect, it's the inferences that are made about it," he said, drawing an analogy to black children and asthma. Health researchers have found that black children are twice as likely to be diagnosed with asthma, in part because black children are more often exposed to environmental toxins.

Faced with that information, "one reaction is to tell pediatricians to stop diagnosing children with asthma. But I don't know if that's helpful, because then you're denying children treatment," he said.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, districts are supposed to monitor special education enrollment for overidentification of minorities, and are supposed to use part of their IDEA money for early-intervention services if overrepresentation is determined to be present. States are also required to monitor for overrepresentation in districts' use of suspensions and expulsions, and in student placement in restrictive settings.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education released a proposal that would require states and districts to use a standard way of identifying disproportionality. You can read more about that in my explainer on minority enrollment in special education

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