A Historical Look at Overrepresentation an its Effect on the Achievement Gap
Parents, teachers and administrators are frustrated with the poor academic progress of many students today. There are counselors, support personnel and consultants contacted in an attempt to remedy this problem. Evaluation specialists are leaning over backwards trying to provide extra help. It is apparent that when a student does not perform well academically there is an urgent need to refer the student for special education. Many believe that special education is present to plug in educational gaps. For many students this is the case. There are many students that benefit from special education services. There are unfortunately many students that are referred and placed into special education programs unnecessarily. In fact the referral and placement could have long-lasting negative effects. The search, however for solutions to improve student low academic performance in schools is a national concern.
Horner et al., (1986) posit that there is a long history of concern that minority students make up a disproportionate percentage of students in special education. In fact, as early as 1968, Artiles and Trent (1994) stated that attention should be called to the disproportionate numbers of minority students placed in segregated classrooms for students with educable mental retardation (Larry P. v. Riles, 1979). Likewise, Tillman (1991) proclaims that there is a critical mass of evidence which clearly indicates that minority children are too numerous in special education programs.
The overrepresentation in special education programs and the achievement gap between white and minority students appear to be widening. A study from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) indicated that overall the achievement gaps remain large and persistent across the nation (Zehr, 2010). In addition, nationally high school graduation rates are substantially lower for minority groups, and particularly for males. In 2001, only 50% of all African American students, and 53% of all Hispanic students graduated from high school. African American and Hispanic males fare even worse: 43% and 48% respectively.
There has been an outcry for the right to a free and appropriate education for minority students for years. A public education consists, however, of far more than just having a s facility of choice to attend school. It’s the “inside happenings” that have become a problem. This sentiment is extremely evident across the nation. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called education “the civil rights issue of our generation” (Armario & Turner, 2010). In addition President Obama recently signed an executive order intended to improve Hispanic education achievement. President Obama noted that Latinos make up the largest minority group in country’s public schools, accounting for more than 1 in 5 students, but are likelier to attend low-performing schools and dropout (Associate Press, 2010). Although there may be various reasons why Hispanic students attend low performing schools, the results usually consist of low academic performance.
The achievement gap appears to consist of disproportionately more males than females. Irvine (1990) declares that African American students, particularly black males are three times as likely to be in a class for the educable mentally retarded (EMR) than white students. For example, a 1978 survey indicated that black children constituted 38% of the students in classes for the educable mentally retarded (EMR) nationwide, whereas black students constitute only about 16% of elementary and secondary students throughout the nation at that time.
One obvious but important factor that contributes to the achievement gap equation is socioeconomic status. This factor usually affects all students. One substantial study conducted by Dr. Magnus Lofstrom (2007) concluded that student poverty is directed related to the dropout rate for African American and Hispanic students. This study also found that a lack of English proficiency was an additional factor that contributed to the dropout rate for Hispanic students. Although researchers have known for four decades that poverty and culture are intertwined, they shied away from the latter as an explanation to avoid being labeled politically incorrect. Today pressure has built to narrow the gap in performance between racial groups and therefore social scientists are now addressing the issue (Gardner, 2010).
Another important factor that would clearly relate to student achievement is parental involvement. It should seem apparent that the more active, involved and supportive a parent is in their child’s life, the more likely that child is to be successful in school. In a study conducted by the Harvard Family Research Project the overall effects of parental involvement was analyzed on k-12 students’ academic achievement and the benefit to children. The results indicated that parental involvement is associated with higher student achievement outcomes. These findings emerged consistently whether the outcome measure were grades or standardized tests. Moreover, the pattern held not only for the overall student population but for minority students as well (Jeynes, 2005). The researcher believes that parental involvement and socioeconomic status combined are directly related to misreferrals and the achievement gap.
Some experts believe that overrepresentation in special education is the overrepresentation of students from low income families Minority overrepresentation in special education will be reduced if less reliance is placed on intelligence tests and more reliance is placed on other forms of assessment. According to one a mother of a minority student enrolled in special education, when,” a student has a different language and someone gives them a test in English, it is obvious that they won’t perform as well (Skaggs, 2001).
Not a new problem
The issue of overrepresentation is not new. The statistics today are similar to those taken thirty years ago. History and research reveal that African American students have historically been repeatedly and unnecessarily referred for special education programs in disproportionate numbers. An example of this is the now famous case of Larry P. v. Riles (1979), which revealed that approximately 20% of the student population in Los Angeles was African American, while 66% of students in the EMR classrooms were African American. Similarly in the state as a whole, approximately 10% of students were African American, while 25% of the students in the state’s EMR classroom were African American. This California case found that the placement of black children in special classes inappropriate because of unfair testing. The judge concluded that the district’s EMR classes were “dead-end” situations for African American students. There was clearly an overrepresentation of African American students being placed in Special Education programs.
Further research needed
Ultimately, there is a dire need to address the issues of overrepresentation and the achievement gap. Strategies and recommendations should be developed that will directly address those issues such as increased parental involvement and support, academic intervention, and teacher preparation.