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Addressing disproportionate representation of
minority students in special education
placement by refining the referral process

by Frank Conahan, Karen Burggraf, Vivian E. Nelson
Arden Bailey and Marilyn Ford

Charles County Public Schools
Department of Special Education
La Plata, Maryland

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Like other American school systems, Charles County Public Schools in southern Maryland has a disproportionately high number of African American male students in special education placements. This has continued to be the case for some time. This is a problem because children that are misplaced in special education are virtually trained to underachieve. Inasmuch as African Americans have traditionally been denied opportunities to excel in our society, over-selecting them for special education placement appears to be a continuation of the practice of treating them as innately inferior, which is wrong by any standard and does not meet their need to a free and appropriate public education.

Review of the data showed that this overrepresentation of African American students emerges between the fifth and seventh grades in our county; it is not to be found among elementary schools. We undertook an aggressive program to reduce this over representation in one of our middle schools. We refined our referral process so that required teachers to implement and then document that they had tried differentiated instruction techniques and sophisticated behavior management with the student prior to referring him or her for special education testing. As a result, no students were tested or placed in special education at this school. The use of this process, paired with training and assistance, helped us to reduce the disproportionate representation of African American students in special education placements at our pilot middle school by 68%. Our results approached significance with a p-value of .05.


In 1998, the Unites States Department of Education identified disproportionate minority representation as an issue to be addressed. That African American boys are disproportionately placed in special education, and that this is a problem, has been exhaustively documented (Artiles 1998; Artiles, 2000; Chin and Hughes, 1987; Dove et al, 1986: Figueroa, 1999; Finn, 1982; Grant, 1992; Patton 1998; Reschly 1988.) All involved agree that students who are misplaced in special education are probably harmed by this placement. Children that are misplaced in special education are virtually trained to underachieve. Inasmuch as African Americans have traditionally been denied opportunities to excel in our society, over-selecting them for special education placement appears to be a continuation of the practice of treating them as innately inferior, which is wrong by any standard and does not meet their need to a free and appropriate public education.

The bulk of the studies cited above note that the problem is chiefly a matter of the overrepresentation of African American boys in special education placements. The specific issue of the interaction of African American ethnicity and male gender is fairly well established (Jones, 1976; Mercer, 1973; Tomlinson, 1982; Peterz, 1999.) Although it is generally not noted as an issue, boys (of all colors) make up approximately 75% of the special education population nationally (Jansen and Russo, 1988;Traustdottir, 1990.)

In Charles County Public Schools for the 2000/2001 school year, African Americans make up 35% of all students, and 42% of (all) the special education population. A review of this data by age group reveals the unexpected fact that the disproportionate representation of African American boys first surfaces at the middle school level. In Charles County’s middle schools African Americans make up 34.5% of all students, and 45% of the middle school special education student population.

Table 1
African Americans in Charles County Public Schools
Special Education by grade level
Grade Level
African Americans
in total population
African Americans
in special education

In Charles County Public Schools male students make up 50% of the general education population and 70% of the special education population. This is not a function of any age grouping but is uniform in elementary, middle, and high schools. This was important in conceptualizing our problem because African American females, like Euro American females, are represented in special education at a proportion that is less than their proportion of the general population. African American males, however, are represented in special education at a number that is almost double their proportion in the population at large.

Table 2
Charles County Public School Middle school
special education students by gender and race
Euro-American Females
African American Females
Euro-American Males
African American Males
General Population
Special Education

At mid year 2000/2001 school year census, our pilot school served a total population of 955 students, of whom 101 were served through special education. Of the 955 students, 306, or 32% could be identified as African American. Of the 101 students served through special education 47 students, or 47%, could be identified as African American.

Students who could be identified as African American made up 63% of eighth grade special education students. Students who could be identified as African American made up 45% of seventh grade special education students. Students who could be identified as African American made up 33% of sixth grade special education students.

Nine students in special education at our pilot school had IQ that measured under 55, three were female, and six were male. Two of these female students were Euro American. One was African American. Six of these students were male. Three of the male students were Euro American. Three of the students were African American. African American males made up 33% of special education students with moderate, severe, or profound levels of mental retardation. Otherwise, African American boys were most highly represented among students with mental retardation, multiple disabilities, and/or speech and language problems.

Table 3
Distribution of special education students
at pilot middle school by code gender and race
Disability Code
Euro-American Females
African American Females
Euro-American Males
African American Males
01 Mental retardation
04 Speech impaired
06 Emotionally disturbed
08 Other health impaired
09 Learning disabled
10 Multiple disabilities

Our pilot project

Our goal was to make sure that all the students in the pilot middle school’s special education program were appropriately placed. We projected that if this were the case, then the distribution of our special education students would substantially resemble the rest of our county’s population in terms of ethnic representation. We targeted a middle school with a pronounced over representation of African Americans in special education and intervened through staff training, case review, and the implementation of a pre-referral screening process.

Our intervention team provided training to the faculty and administrators in legal and inclusion issues, differentiation of instruction, and the pre-referral screening process.

We worked with the school to monitor referrals closely and intervene in cases of multiple failure or persistent problem behavior. We helped the school deal with the problem in the classroom if possible, so only referrals of students who actually needed assistance beyond differentiation in teaching and classroom management were referred for further testing.

Since these boys had done without special education assistance up until sixth grade, we did not see that necessarily followed that the problem was with the student. Instruction needs to include all the students in the classroom. If the teacher is only teaching to the majority of students rather than all of the students, or is s/he is failing to do effective classroom management, then we need to help the teacher do a better job rather than move the student into a special education placement. Based on these premises, we designed our pre-referral screening process to ensure that we ruled out variables other than emotional disturbance and/or cognitive processing problems prior to testing for suitability for special education placement.

Students' status at all Charles County Public Schools is recorded and a census is compiled at mid-year. We compared the mid-year numbers (reviewed above) for 2000/2001 prior to intervention, with the mid-year census for 2001/2002 to determine the impact of our intervention. We looked at the change in the total African American special education population in our pilot schools to determine the impact of our intervention.

Race as a factor in special education placement

As was noted, the bulk of the studies cited above note that overrepresentation in special education placements primarily affects African American boys. The specific issue of the interaction of African American ethnicity and male gender is fairly well established (Jones, 1976; Mercer, 1973; Tomlinson, 1982; Peterz, 1999.) Efforts to find out why race is such a potent predictor of selection for special education placement have not been conclusive, but have indicated that certain factors are key. In their search for factors that lead to disproportionate representation of African Americans in special education placement in Delaware schools, Hosp and Rechly (2001) found no difference among variables associated with increased restrictiveness of placement between Euro- and African American students. Gender, behavioral dimensions, and academic failure were noted to affect placement of both groups. According to the authors the "severity of problem, presence of behavior problems, and family involvement" were the three main "categories" into which the variables that impact placement fell.

Artiles (2000) has suggested that group membership is key to one's likelihood of placement in special education. He notes economic, class, linguistic, racial, and family of origin issues as all impacting the process by changing the attitudes of teachers and other decision makers about the potentialities of the children who end up in these placements. Apple (1996) sees this as a purely political polarization; a function of "us versus them" thinking that generates perceptions of groups in which failure and inferiority is taken for granted.

Although factors other than race contribute to the inequity in distribution, the complexity of the problem does not excuse the school system from solving it. Patton (1998) points out that race is a factor in disproportionate special education selection, even where there is no specific intent to discriminate by race. He points out that (per Foucault) science is not values neutral. The "science of assessment" tends to generate a methodology that affects not only the way we measure events, but the number of possible outcomes that we can conceive and their meaning. When assessment systematically over-selects a specific grouping as "disabled" then the whole discourse needs to be examined. He asserts that it is simply not acceptable that African American boys are systematically tested, diagnosed, and moved into special education at a disproportionate rate.

If the test scores support this process on the part of schools, the way test scores are used needs to be re-appraised. Patton and Meyer (2001) note that testing qualifies a majority of students who have been referred nationally for admission to special education. He also states (1998) "the current special education system is structurally flawed and thus in need of critique. The critique of the dogmatic, structuralist grounding of special education and its knowledge producers provided a preliminary lens into an ethic of critique. This ethic of critique employs a frame of reference to uncover the marginalization and dehumanizing effect of a system that disproportionately relegates large numbers of a cultural group into programs proven to be dysfunctional to their development." (Pp. 30.)

In other words, finding reasons other than race for the problem do not explain away the problem. At best, these factors are useful in coming up with ways to attack the problem of overrepresentation. It is important, however, that they not be used as excuses for it.

Changing the referral process

Much of what we did in this project consisted of helping people re-frame their approach to children. We, admittedly, took a somewhat forceful approach. The "usual" process of identifying children in need of assistance is fairly straightforward; children who are failing are referred and, if there is consensus among parents and educators, testing is done to determine the need for special education services. In most cases, some deficit is to be found in a child whose failure has attracted notice, and some way is found to "assist" the child through special education placement. The special education staff is usually seen as the "ones who do that sort of thing."

We needed to re-center accountability in this process. The people who were primarily responsible for helping the unsuccessful child do better in the regular education classroom must include everybody in that school. In order to make that assertion real, our intervention team had to be available to assist both in the team's processing of the case and in the classroom. Once it was clear that we were willing to work with them, the members of the SST made a similar commitment. We had to help the psychologists, teachers, and administrators see that what we faced was fundamentally not a "special education problem," but rather a problem that the school as a whole needed to own and go about solving. We were much aided in this area by the good will and professionalism of everyone involved.

From the onset, we were careful to ensure that everybody understood this was not chiefly a numbers game: the numbers showed us that we were doing something wrong and we had to change that. Once everybody understood that we had a problem and that we had to change, we were able to proceed as a team and change our methods.

Patton's insight is not to be ignored. The disproportionate representation we confront is a direct result of people doing what they have been trained to do. Teachers are trained to see failure chiefly in terms of student’s disability, assessors are trained to find that disability, and special educators are trained to help the student compensate for this disability. Since the area of weakness that presents in testing, while perhaps best not thought of as disability, does, in any case, represent an area in which the student does not have particular strength, the special educator can often demonstrate something that looks like progress with remediatory intervention. Unfortunately, the remediation never quite gets the student out of the category of "special education student." Since the student probably does not suffer from any actual cognitive processing problem, the intervention will never "solve" the problem.

Following this scenario, the problem that led to the special education designation, the lack of a stimulating and embracing classroom, does not get solved, because the "special education student" designation explains the student's failure. Since this designation comes with lower expectations, segregation from the general school population, and diminution of the student's self esteem, the student generally graduates, or fails to do so, with an unbroken record of under-achievement. This bleak outcome tends to reinforce the designation.

Once everybody working with the student came to understand this dynamic, we were able to find creative ways to go about avoiding it. No teacher we worked with was interested, in victimizing children to be rid of "problems." The teachers we dealt with were trying to "follow the rules" that they understood to relate to these kinds of children. When we revised the rules, we got cooperation.

It was difficult for teachers to change the way they taught. While this intervention did not accomplish a complete revolution in the teaching and classroom management at our pilot school, it did launch a process of change. This process will have to be nurtured.

We probably suppressed referrals by the making the referral process more cumbersome. We did not verify this, but we were satisfied that students who needed service were not being slighted. If the addition of these steps discouraged referrals, which were often ill advised, that is all to the good. If working through the pre-referral package prompted or reminded teachers that much more could be done than had been done, this is also to the good. We did not receive any feedback that any referrals were not made because of the changes made in the referral process. Frankly, the amount of energy that goes into the process of referral, testing, and admission is probably much better spent directly on working with the child in the regular education classroom in most cases. If the addition of this step tended to redirect energy toward the student in this way, then that is all to the good. We will have to continue to monitor this sixth grade class at our pilot school to ensure that we don't see a rash of referrals in the seventh grade.

Children who can be educated without special education services should be. Special education placement is very valuable to some students, but students who are inappropriately placed often suffer more than they benefit. This is usually because “labeling also may bring lowered expectations from teachers and others” (Cross, 2002.)

Different students tend to respond to different teaching strategies (Magmer 2000; McAdamis, 2001; Troxler, 2000; Tomlinson, 2000.) We can be sure that in most of our classrooms, teachers are employing teaching strategies well suited to keeping Euro-American girls in the classroom. We need to ensure that all students have access to a variety of teaching strategies to optimize the probability of their success; otherwise the lack of differentiation of instruction becomes another variable leading to disproportionate failure and special education placement.

We contend that differentiated instruction and behavioral support ought not be something that a student gets in special education, but rather something that is basically the right of every student in public education. To address the disproportionate placement, we must address these variables in the regular education classroom and preclude the failure that otherwise would lead to assessment and special education placement. Before looking for what is "wrong" with the student, we must look to see what may be lacking in the environment that contributes to his failure. This may constitute a broad reading of IDEA, but it seems to be the best way to tackle our problem of disproportionate representation.

To ensure that all students referred for special education testing were appropriate for referral, we changed our referral process so that the referring teachers had to provide these services to the student and document that s/he had done so. If the referring teacher was unable to do so, our team intervened to help the teacher develop and implement improved classroom management and differentiated instruction.

Description of the pre-referral intervention process

Table 4
The pre-referral process training is a whole staff training
that models the following steps:
  • Each teacher must fill out the Academic Intervention Checklist for the student in question. Work samples and examples of differentiated activities used in the classroom must accompany the checklist.
  • Each teacher must fill out the Behavior Intervention Checklist for the student in question.
  • The Intervention Team reviews the checklists and work samples.
  • The Intervention Team observes the student in question.
After review, the student is sent either back to the general education classroom with specific intervention recommendations or the student is sent to the IEP team for an initial referral.

Disposition of students referred to SST during pilot project

Student A was referred for testing by the SST at the request of his father prior to100401. During the time that he was being tested, members of our team observed him in his classroom and made various recommendations to his teachers. His scores did not indicate a sufficient cleavage among abilities to justify his placement in special education. His performance improved as a result of the changes made in his classroom. This improvement in performance pleased his father who agreed that he need not further pursue special education placement.

SST identified student B because of poor performance in the sixth grade. The year before, student B had made good grades. He had also received medication for the treatment of ADHD. His mother had asked that this medication be discontinued because she did not like the side effects. His teachers were concerned that his short attention span and high level of activity in the classroom was a problem.

We observed this student and had his teachers fill out the pre-referral packet. It was apparent to us that we were chiefly dealing with a fairly minor behavior problem and a need for more creativity in approaching this student on the part of his teachers. Some of his teachers had noted this themselves and begun to differentiate instruction prior to our involvement. In these classes, his grades were steadily improving.

We had a conference with the teachers and guidance counselor and made various recommendations chiefly in the vein that had already begun. The teachers and guidance counselor actually agreed that special education placement was not appropriate in his case, but had brought the case up at SST because they really did not know how else to approach these issues. They agreed to continue with the process of differentiation we recommended. These included focusing exercises to hone his attending skills, which would tend to reduce problem behavior.

Students C and D were both referred to the SST because of behavior problems. They shared several classes, which seemed in need of enhancements in classroom management technique. We are currently working with the psychologists to help the teachers improve in these areas. There is no consensus among the team members that there is really any reason to suspect a cognitive processing problem in either case. Both of these students are in the seventh grade.

One female student, E, has been referred to SST. She is being observed in class. It is clear that she will not be tested inasmuch as the issues that are causing her problems are obviously related to classroom management. She is in eighth grade.


Between February 2001 and February 2002, there was a certain amount of demographic change that affected our population. The total population of the school rose to 1014 students, of whom 369 (36.3%) are African American.

No student was admitted to special education placement at our pilot school between September 2001 and February 2002. Two students, who already had individualized education plans in place, transferred to our pilot school from a middle school out of the county. Both of these students were African American.

By February 2001, 47 of the 101 special education students at our pilot school were African American, (47% of that population.) Of the 955 students in the school, 309 (32.1%) were African American. By February 2002, 42 of the 98 special education students at our pilot school were African American, (41.8 % of that population.) Of the 1016 students in the school, 369 (36.3%) were African American.

The percentage of African American special education students by February 2001 was a multiple of 1.5 of the percent of the total school population that was African American. The percentage of African American special education students by February 2002 is a multiple of 1.15 of the percent of the total school population that is African American. In sum, the disproportionate representation of African Americans in our school was reduced by 68%.

A Chi Square was done to determine the significance of these results (see table 4.) This analysis investigated whether the proportion of African American students in regular education vis-à-vis special education in the year 2001-2002 was the same as the proportion in year 2000-2001. The proportion of African American regular education students vis-à-vis African American special education students in 2000-2001 was .85 to .15. These proportions were used to model the 2001-2002 number of students in special education. Results indicated a significant difference between the observed and expected frequency counts for class [c2 (1, N = 369) = 3.79, p = .05. The observed sample frequency proportion of Regular Education to Special Education was .89 to .11. This difference approaches significance with a p-value of .05.

Table 5
Chi Square Calculations
CLASS: 2001 - 2001

Valid Percent
Cumulative Percent



NPar Tests

Chi-Square Test


Observed N
Expected N




Test Statistics


Chi-Square 3.79

df 1

Asymp. Sig. 0.052

a 0 cells (.0%) have expected frequencies less than 5.
The minimum expected cell frequency is 55.4.


As we were preparing our results, the National Academy of Sciences (2002) published its report Minority Children in Gifted and Special Education. The Academy recommended that federal guidelines for special education eligibility should encourage better-integrated general and special education services. The student should exhibit large differences from typical performance levels in one or more domains and show insufficient response to high-quality interventions to be eligible for special education. It also recommends withholding judgment as to whether or not a child has a cognitive disability or emotional disturbance until he or she has received high quality instructional and behavioral support in the general education setting (as quoted in CEC/Today February/March 2002.) The results of our pilot project support this statement

We plan to use this model in all Charles County middle schools next year. This will require that we build teams at each of these schools. It also will mean that we will have to continue to work with administrators, teachers, and professionals at various levels to renew and maintain emphasis. Although we are at the beginning of this process, we have been encouraged by the progress we have made thus far.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 18, 2003

Also see:

  • Bucking the Trend
    Creating supports to help African American special education studentsstay in high school: Charles County Public School’s “Hiatus” Project
    by Frank Conahan, Douglas Lamb, and Teresa Robinson
    Charles County Public Schools
    La Plata, Maryland
  • Tackling the Last Bastion of over-representation of African American students in Charles County Schools:
    Achieving parity among students served under eligibility code 01, mental retardation
    by Frank Conahan Ph.D., Patricia Vaira Ph.D.
    La Plata, Maryland
  • The Overrepresentation of Black Students in Special Education Classrooms
    Kimberly Suzette Peterz
    Chicago, Illinois

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