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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.
Charles County Public Schools
La Plata, Maryland

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In 1999, Charles County Public Schools’ (CCPS) enrollment of African American students in special education exceeded their representation in the general population by 33%. Currently, African American student enrollment in CCPS special education is within 5% of that of the general population. In 1999, 16% of CCPS African American students were enrolled in special education. Today 9% of CCPS African American students are enrolled in special education (8.7% of all CCPS students are enrolled in special education.)

This change was brought about by the introduction of refinements to our pre-referral process (Conahan et al, 2003) and has been undertaken as part of a systemic commitment to ensure equity in the treatment of all CCPS students. CCPS strongly deprecates any racist practices, be they deliberate or not, because they are by any standard wrong and have rightly been proscribed in federal and local educational law and best practice. Initiatives aimed at the reduction of over-representation have fit well with CCPS’ orientation in this regard.

The reduction in disproportional representation among African American students in special education by almost 85% has been of a piece with related projects (Conahan, Lamb, Robinson, 2003) over the last five years to ensure parity of treatment to all students. The gains made in this area appear to be real. Reduction has not only been retained, but we have constantly moved closer to exact equivalence between the representation of African American students in the schools and in special education enrollments (see Table 1 -- will open in new browser window)

The only area in which CCPS African American students have continued to be represented at rates appreciably higher than other students is under the 01 eligibility category. This year it was brought to within 20% of the general population through a process of re-evaluation and examination of the options available to the team and the student. (see Table 2 below)

Our goal this year was to ensure that no more than 1% of African American students would be enrolled in special education under the 01 eligibility designation at year’s end.

In order to achieve this outcome, CCPS undertook to review and reassess all students in this category, to determine the appropriateness of their placements, and re-code where that action appeared to be indicated. Additionally, we put in place systemic supports to ensure that proper selection and evaluation are conducted so that teams and/or assessors not make inappropriate designations.

CCPS Students’ Prevalence of Mental Retardation

DSM IV reports that approximately one percent of the members of any normal population will present with mental retardation (page 46.) DSM IV notes that others have offered different estimates of the prevalence of mental retardation among normal populations using various definitions. Since the DSM IV is the best standard source for definition, and presumably the prevalence reported is the one the authors of that document consider most reflective of the population of individuals who would be recognized as presenting with mental retardation according to the criterion provided in it, one percent will be used as the highest optimal representation of students enrolled in special education under the 01 designation.

In April 2004, approximately one percent of CCPS special education students were served under the 01 designation. 1.5% of CCPS African American students had been found eligible under the 01 eligibility designation. 0.75% of all other CCPS students had been found eligible under 01. This latter figure is not obviously an under representation of the population because mental retardation often occurs co-morbidly with autism, physical disabilities, and/or other disabilities, and other designations might be preferable.

As of April 2004, African Americans made up 44% of CCPS students overall and 56% of students in special education under the 01 designation.

In April, 0.9% of CCPS African American elementary students were enrolled in special education under the 01 eligibility designation. 2% of CCPS African American middle school students are enrolled in special education under the 01 eligibility designation and 2.3% of CCPS African American high school students were enrolled in special education under 01. This rate of coding indicated that mental retardation among African American students in CCP middle and high schools was about twice what one would expect.

The over-representation of African American students in middle and high school enrolled under 01 is not, unfortunately, only a function of old practices. During the 04/05 school year, fifteen African American students were added to CCPS special education enrollment under 01. Not all of the middle and high school students in this group were transfers from outside systems, although that has a major contributing factor. Nevertheless, African American students are still being admitted to special education in middle and high school under 01, even when this so-called mental retardation was first demonstrated at the age of 12 or 13.

Our team decided that once we were dealing with prevalence at or below one percent, we would conclude that the appropriateness of the enrollment among African Americans could come to within 20% of the prevalence for non-African American students or not and still be acceptable. (Obviously, we cannot insist that African American students’ representation co-vary with that of their non African American peers if that latter representation seems unusually low, explanations that might make it seem reasonable notwithstanding.)

What is going on here?

Problems with standardized testing among African American students have been noted in the literature for some time. Grant (1992) documents a long history of problems associated with standardized testing and the diagnosis and placement of African American Students, noting that in the Riles case, IQ tests were noted to be biased and that such tests used in isolation were not to be used to determine diagnosis and placement because they represented an objective violation of students’ fourteenth amendment rights. Similar findings in the Diana case (pertaining to testing and placement of Hispanic students, which took place in 1979) have long established that there are problems with the use of these measures among minority populations. Grant suggests that the continued use of these kinds of assessments probably explains why, at the time of his study, African American children constituted 17% of all American students and 41% of all American special education students. These latter were primarily to be found among those designated as “educable mentally retarded and behavior disorders.” Grant’s numbers basically agreed with Kubiszyn’s (1990) assessment a few years earlier.

Serwatka (1986) had found that African American students tended to be over represented in special classes where placement was based upon standardized tests. Standardized tests used with African American students have also been characterized as a contributing factor in the constriction of certain educational opportunities (Hale, 1986) In her review of the literature, Kimberly Peterz (1999) cites problems with cultural competency among assessors as well as intrinsic problems with the construction of the assessments as chief among the reasons for the consistent finding that African American students are more likely to score as mentally retarded.

Patton (1998) called for a thorough-going rethinking of the "science of assessment," which, he asserts, 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 students are systematically tested, diagnosed as mentally retarded, and moved into special education at a disproportionate rate.

Patton’s contention is compelling indeed, but while the Cultural Revolution in assessment proceeds, the schools still have to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities of various kinds, including mental retardation, and must do so in a way that does not systematically discriminate against minority populations. In our specific situation, we knew we had over-identified a large group of African American students as mentally retarded and we needed to correct that situation as quickly as possible. Although we had researched, purchased, and have continued to seek out more sensitive measures, we could not wait until our assessment mechanism was perfect before we started to fix our problem.

What to do?

We knew we had to do several things, the first of which was to make sure that no more testing among this group than was necessary was undertaken as part of an initial referral to special education. Our initial success in reducing the over-representation of African American students to special education was a result of keeping at-risk students in the regular school population by helping them to succeed there. Since we knew that the chances of a young person being misdiagnosed as mentally retarded was gigantically decreased by making sure that the student was not assessed, we saw continuing to have an active pre-referral intervention as key.

We knew that we had to keep up awareness about the issue of minority over-representation. We needed to continue to impress student-support personnel and teachers that it remained essential that African American students not be tested until and unless we had an opportunity to intervene and assist them to be successful in the classrooms in which they found themselves. For this reason, we continued to train and to keep teachers and administrators informed about their rates of minority special education enrollments and how these compared with expectations. Disseminating information about enrollments and areas of over-representation seemed to be a very effective way both of maintaining focus and providing motivation for key school personnel to take measures to bring numbers into line with acceptable limits.

We also knew that we had a population of about 11,300 African American students in the county schools so that we should anticipate that we would have 113 to 123 African American students with mental retardation in the county, or a good explanation for why we had more. Since we had 165, we surmised that we probably had between 40 and 50 students who were being served under the 01 code whom we might better characterize in another way.

Since fewer than one percent of our African American elementary school students were served under the 01 eligibility code, we decided that these were likely correct, or at any rate, individually no more likely to be incorrect than were any other group of students. Since our rates of representation of middle and high school students were twice what we expected, we predicted that about half of them might be better served under another category. There were 122 African American CCPS middle and high school students served under 01.

Our supervising psychologist and our severe disabilities specialist reviewed all these files and found eighty where the diagnosis was questionable, other conditions might have been present, or coding errors had occurred. Coding errors were corrected at that point and the names of the students whose cases seemed appropriate for re-evaluation were communicated to their IEP case managers who convened the teams to consider the recommendation for reassessment and review. The teams tended to be receptive to the recommendations for reassessment and undertook it. Additional testing hours from a psychologist specifically contracted to assist with these reassessments were made available for this purpose.

In all cases, some reassessment was conducted, although not in all cases of the cognitive level. In several cases, there was no question that the student did indeed have mental retardation, but in a large number of cases, other disorders, such as Autism, or Orthopedic disorder were also either suspected, or clearly present. In such cases, that assessment necessary to document the other impairment was conducted and the coding was changed to accommodate the new information, either by switching to a new coding, as in cases in which autism was the especially significant issue, or using the code for multiple disabilities where that was appropriate.

In this way, the manner in which we dealt with these cases came to resemble the manner in which white students were typically coded. According to various estimates (besides DSM IV) as many as two percent of students in any given population may have mental retardation, but it is seldom a “stand alone” diagnosis in the whole population. Among Euro American students, we have a very large group who had mental retardation, but since they also had autism or some other disorder, they were not coded 01.

Our goal was to ensure both that we had defensible enrollment statistics, and perhaps more importantly, that all our students were treated fairly and in a similar manner. Mental retardation as a single coding generally means that other major disabling disorders are not present. Among Euro American students, we noted that the files frequently tended to be thick with documentation of any possible diagnosable problems, while among African American students there seemed to be a decided paucity of the same. We acted to equalize the diagnostic rigor the cases of each. (At this point, enrollments among Hispanic and/or Asian American students in CCPS are not large enough to function as a valid basis of comparison.)

Several of the students in this group had met criterion for eligibility under other categories in the past and were moved to the 01 category after a subsequent evaluation arrived a lower IQ score. In several cases, reassessment corrected the low IQ. In several other cases, reassessment of the low IQ was not considered necessary since higher adaptive schools and higher scores on measures such as the educational or language evaluations threw sufficient doubt on the IQ that other eligibility criterion were used to justify continued special education services. The dubious nature of the mental retardation diagnosis in these cases was noted in the file and the IEP process continued otherwise uninterrupted.

In several cases, IEP recommendations had become irrelevant because the students were functioning in their regular classes and did not need any supportive services. Typically, these student would have been released from special education placements, (as several African American students had been a few years earlier during our initial intervention to reduce overall special education enrollment,) but had not because typically students with mental retardation are never released from special education. In these cases, students were released from special education if they no longer qualified, i.e. if there was no further educational impact and they did not appear to be benefiting from continued services. They continued to be monitored closely throughout the year, however, and had assistance available to them. All did well without additional services. It should be noted that in all these cases, the students had been diagnosed with mild and/or borderline mental retardation.

And in some cases, the students, when reassessed were found to have mental retardation and no other disorder. They continued to receive services under the 01 code.


In April 2004, 165 CCPS African American students were served under the 01 eligibility code in special education. During the 2004/2005 school year, 15 CCPS African American students were admitted under the 01 eligibility code to special education, either for the first time or as a result of transferring into the county with an active IEP that carried that eligibility code. As of May 2005, as a result of the reassessment initiative undertaken, 68 CCPS African American special education students were either found to be better served under another code or released from special education altogether. At this point, 112 African American special education students are served under the 01 code. They comprise 51.8% of the students in the county served under this code, which is within 20% of their representation in the general population. Currently, one percent (1%) of all CCPS African American students are served in special education under the 01 eligibility designation (see table 2.)

Table 2: Charles County Public Schools Students with 01 disability codes from June 2003 to April 2005
Date Afr-Am Euro All % All students % AA students
060603 173 129 302 1.22% 1.6%
040104 165 132 297 1.16% 1.5%
t042105 112 104 216 0.9% 1.0%

Currently, 0.6% of CCPS African American elementary school students, 1% of CCPS African American middle school students, and 1.47% of CCPS African American high school students continue to be served under 01. This compares with 0.5% of CCPS Euro American elementary school students, 0.7% of CCPS Euro American middle school students, and 1% of CCPS Euro American high school students. At this point, the only remaining area of over-representation is in high school, which is not problematic if we maintain the trends we have established over the past couple years.


Most of what we dealt with was not ‘mistakes’ in assessment per se. Although there were several cases in which the designations had been based on IQ and other indicators were not sufficiently weighted, in most of the case we reviewed, the case for mental retardation was at least prima facie valid. In some of these cases, adaptive, cognitive, and other assessments tended to reinforce each other and indicate retardation and only additional assessment provided information that was inconsistent with this designation.

Many of the students did indeed qualify for special education services because they clearly were functioning with mental retardation. Several of these same students, however, also could not achieve locomotion without wheelchairs, had very pronounced and disabling autism, or presented with some other configuration of disabilities that indicated that another category of eligibility would better characterize their needs. Once these cases were thoroughly researched, a broader range of eligibility options was available to the team.

As has been noted, Euro American students with mental retardation are not missing from our system, but quite frequently are served under other codes. One cannot but come to the conclusion that for whatever reason, in cases in which one is confronting the eligibility of African American students, there has not always been the same due diligence paid to the full range of possible options. After this experience, this should no longer be the case.

One thing that became quite clear is that the team cannot just blame the psychologists. Determining eligibility is a team process, as is assessment; deliberation about what is the best way to characterize the child’s disabilities and needs requires more than the input of a single assessor, no matter how competent.

In order to make this happen, special education personnel, the psychologists, and the teachers and administrators who knew these students at the school had to work together to pool knowledge and insights, talk to family members, get additional documentation, etc. This should not be something unusual but clearly exemplifies the type of process which the legislation intended to be the norm.

It has generally been the experience of Charles County Public Schools that the closer we stick to the best practices articulated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the better has been our outcome.


All racism is not deliberate; it can happen as a result of the influence of assumptions about groups of people that remain in the cultural deep structure even after the thinking and social values that provide support for them have been discredited and made a source of embarrassment. In other words, people who mean well and are not personally antagonistic to African Americans may be receptive to information that reinforces the social prejudices that they are carrying around without any awareness that they are doing so. One of these social prejudices is the notion that black kids are more likely to be retarded and seeing them designated as such in disproportionately high numbers is not a big deal.

When test scores, poor academic performance, and an apparent lack of interest on the part of low achieving African American students reinforce this unexamined notion, we are likely to end up with an over-representation of African American students in the 01 category. This is not an insoluble problem, as has been demonstrated, but it must be tackled with determination.

Test scores are indicators. They are not controlling in any sense. This has more than been established in the case law, best practices, and anywhere else that the subject has been addressed. Unfortunately, our society tends to be very geared toward scores and tends to rely more heavily on these than on other types of information. In these cases, unfortunately, lots of other important information gets missed and information that is dubious is accepted as something like certitude.

Most researchers and theorists who have considered this situation conclude that if the test scores support over-representation of minority students among students coded as mentally retarded, then 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, which tends to put the relative value of these assessments in the selection process into perspective.

Patton 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.)

Patton is clearly correct, but as noted, in the meantime, we still have to serve the kids. A de-emphasis on test scores and a more holistic appreciation of the personhood of the student as part of a highly collaborative team process seems our best bet at this point.

Incidentally, the white kids will not die if they do not get attention in equal or greater measure at all times; during the time that enrollment went from 165 African American students with 01 designations, the enrollments among Euro American students in 01 fell from 132 to 104. This is not as dramatic a change as was the one among African American students, but there was a fairly light representation of children eligible as 01 among Euro American students prior to the commencement of this process. It was noted during other initiatives that once awareness about problems in enrollment became general, a new concern about newly exigent (and utterly nonexistent) over-representation among white kids emerged.

The fact is that, although it would be wonderful to live in a completely color-blind society, we don’t. The notion that we must always treat everyone fairly is always valid. The time to get concerned about fairness is when it clearly is not driving the process, like in a noticeable number of cases among African American students. Each case must be dealt with individually, but energy is usually in short supply and needs not be disproportionately directed where it is not needed. CCPS has no history of over-selecting Euro American students into special education, into the 01 category, or into any too restrictive setting or placement category. Unfortunately this cannot be said of African American students.

At this point, CCPS African American students have not been over-represented in special education for the past couple years. They are currently not over-represented in any category of eligibility and program interventions we have put in place continue to ensure that the rate of out-of-the-building suspensions among African American students in special education is comparable to that of other students. These indicators are very positive. We recognize, however, that those tendencies that brought this situation about have not been fully eradicated and we must continue to implement those changes we have made and to monitor all relevant indicators if we are to conserve what we have thus far achieved.

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine June 26, 2005

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