A historical look at overrepresentation and the achievement gap

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.

History continues

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.

Acheivement Gap

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.

SES status

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.

7 thoughts on “A historical look at overrepresentation and the achievement gap

  1. I personally agree with all that is written, however, I feel the parental involvement should be listed at the top. Nothing is being none to help get some of the women on the welfare system off. Children should be fed, have electric and heat, however, some of the parents take advantage of the system, continue to have more children to keep from getting employed. I am not speaking about all parents, some have lost their jobs and have not other choice. The problem I am concerned with is the parents who choose to watch TV, get their nails and feet done and their weaves, yet will not help the child at home, will not come to school to any of the parent-teacher conferences, etc., will not keep the child clean. They put forth no effort, are happy the children are at school and away from the home. Through it all, the children suffer, the teachers suffer, and the child is eventually placed in a undesireable class! President Clinton tried to help get these people off of welfare and in the working community, it did not work for long. I worked three jobs to help pay for home health care for my mother. I had to get up at 3:30 am to clean, prepare my mother’s meals (my mother would not eat from them because she said they did not wash their hands) most of the ones that were not worth a dime, were coming off of welfare and had children. If you could have heard some of the wild stores, they sat, watched TV and used the remote. My mother was very quiet and some of them would ask her if she could read and write. My mother was 81 and very fiesty, she would tell them, she would teach them to read and write and how to work if they wanted to try or they could go home and never come back! Some of them said, if they were fired after three weeks, they could get their welfare benefits back again. The children are the ones that suffer.

    • That’s a very interesting and insightful response. It’s clear that the information relates to personal experience. One thing that I do agree with, is that parental involvement should be one of the primary factors considered when addressing the achievement gap.

  2. Your post, Current Events and Trends in Education | A historical look at overrepresentation and the achievement gap, is really well written and insightful. Glad I found your website, warm regards from Ashley!

  3. We’re glad that you’ve found the researched scholarly article insightful. The site is devoted only for academic and scholarly information, writings and comments.

    There will not be any advertisements of any kind accepted as a post or comment. This information will all be coded as spam and then deleted.

    Thanks for your comment Ashley!

  4. 5th-graders in middle-class public schools across the United States spent 90% of their time in their seats listening to the teacher or working alone, and only 7% of their time working in groups. Further, the average 5th grader received 5 times as much instruction in rote learning than they received instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning. The US high school graduation rate is only 70%, and 40% of all students who enter college must take remedial courses. It is estimated that 50% of students starting college never complete a college degree. Wagner’s interviews with students and professors suggest that what is missing is not content knowledge, but competencies. In core classes and even in AP courses, students are drilled in specific content and vocabulary necessary to pass standardized tests, rather than trained in open-ended inquiry, assessment, reasoning, collaboration and presentation. Wagner takes us beyond the usual complaints about tenure and unions to examine dysfunctional structural components of the educational system. In general, degree programs for teaching and school administration suffer the same flaw of content over competencies. Once they graduate, teachers are seldom given more than checklist evaluations, and rarely sit in on one anothers classrooms or collaborate for instructional improvement. Instead, Wagner suggests, most teachers have little recourse other than to re-discover effective teaching on their own, in a hit-or-miss manner. As a consequence, not only are best practices not promulgated, but there is little consensus among teachers about what constitutes good teaching. Wagner also looks at the problem of how our current teaching practices fail to engage and motivate students. Outside of school, our children have team sports and group activities, and are immersed in the Internet world of interactivity, social networking, and visual information access. Despite legitimate concerns about addictive behavior, violent content and cyber-bullying, Wagner points out that our kids online experience, including even gaming, is much more relevant to the kind of activity found in most information-intensive careers. Our children want group connections, open-ended exploration, immediate feedback response, and relevance. Multitasking, search, and filtering are natural tasks to them, while they have little patience for long, linear, non-visual texts. Our schools offer students little of what engages them. Instead of group activity, they get one-way lectures and individual worksheets. Instead of open-ended exploration, they get drills and tests. Instead of rich interactive, multimedia information, they get dry textbooks. Wagner argues that most high-school school drop-outs occur not because the student lacks ability, but because they lack motivation.

  5. What’s up, of course this piece of writing is really fastidious and I have learned lot of things from it concerning blogging. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>