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The Overrepresentation of Black Students
in Special Education Classrooms

Part 2 - Summary of the Findings &
Conclusions and Recommendations

Kimberly Suzette Peterz
Chicago, Illinois

Summary of the Findings

Interview responses were used to ascertain the degree to which Black students are overrepresented and misplaced in special education, as a result of insufficient participation of parents, teacher training and biased testing practices. An analysis of the interview by category revealed negative responses to current methods of special education placement. The responses of the special education chairperson were more specific than those of the principal. The principal did not have the same amount of student and parental contact as the special education professional. This factor causes a high occurrence of unanswered responses. In responding tot he interview, the principal stated that the current school psychologist is Jewish. The psychologist, who is female, is the only person responsible for special education evaluations. He agrees that this is a strike against the Black students that she is evaluating. He is not very involved in the special education process, as stated before, so his knowledge is limited. He was able to answer questions regarding teacher training. The principal stated that he did not take a course in cultural diversity, but agrees that teachers should be trained extensively in this area. Actually, he prefers to have overly-trained and prepared special education personnel, than someone inadequate. He also stated that Black children are sometimes misunderstood, because of the ignorance surrounding Black culture.

The special education professional was able to answer more of the interview in detail. She confirmed that the psychologist for the school was Jewish. She admitted that she has no particular reason to dispute the psychologist's performance, but a Black psychologist would give the students an increased chance of being understood, instead of being placed into special education. She also stated that the current testing practices were not sensitive to various cultures. She did not know of any cases of misdiagnosis or misplacement. She stated that if a student was to be released from a special education program, the student would be tested, have parental input, and teacher's records (grades and attendance) would be reviewed. Also teacher recommendations and antidotal records (asking a teacher questions that would assist in making a decision) would be considered. In regards to parental involvement, she stated that parents have refused to have their child placed in the special education program, due to the stigma associated with special education placement. In her experience, some parents thought that tutoring would help more than special education. She stated that parental support is not very common, it is mostly left up tot he teacher. If there is any parental support, the parents follow up with the teacher after placement. She also stated that parental involvement increases in White school districts, and decreases in Black school districts. She did take several courses in cultural diversity, and felt that it can and will make a difference I how teachers relate to Black children.

The observation of the special education class showed that the four females were very quiet opposed to the male students. The males behaved in a loud, yet non-violent manner. All of the conversation revolved around extracurricular activities and violence that took place in the community. No conversation was about school or school-related activities. Additional information was given to the researcher regarding this particular class. The special education professional that was interviewed stated that these students could very easily be mainstreamed into regular classrooms. She boasted that her group of students was well disciplined, and she attempted to mainstream them into classes as much as possible. She stated that many times, special education professionals 'set unrealistic goals for children, place them in self-contained classes as if they will need to be in them forever.'

Conclusion and Recommendations

The purpose of this study was to determine the degree to which Black students are overrepresented and misplaced in special education, as a result of current testing and placement practices, insufficient parental knowledge of special education rights and responsibilities, and the need for more cultural diversity training for teachers in a Chicago Public School. Special education can be helpful to many students. But imagine being placed with special students when it is not necessary. Imagine feeling alienated. Many Black children feel this way. They are placed in special education programs, when they should be blending in with their peers. They are misunderstood. They are misplaced. The most obvious need to begin correcting this problem is more research. Limited research is available in this area, and in order to rectify the misrepresentation of Black students in special education research must be conducted as a basis for informing current practice. Further studies must be implemented to investigate why Black students, especially males, are consistently overrepresented in the special education population.

There is also a desperate need for extensive inservice to help teachers understand PL-142 ad its implications for offering students assistance. This is evident in the lack of questions the principal was able to respond to. Not only should the special education professional be able to answer questions about her department, but the principal as well. A mandatory core of classes should be implemented, to ensure that teachers are well trained in cultural diversity before being placed into public schools. The use of Black psychologists should be increased. This study showed how the use of a psychologist who did not have the same cultural background, impacts the special education initiative in this particular school. Therefore, the psychologist is unaware of many cultural differences and behaviors that Black students exhibit. The increased use of Black psychologists will give Black students an advantage of being evaluated by someone who is familiar with the Black background, and possibly many have experienced some behaviors as well. They also have the added advantage of being able to interpret results of evaluations within the context of African-American culture. The study has concluded that parental involvement in special education is mandatory. Parents do not realize the influence they might have on a child's placement or lack thereof. Parents need to be made aware of their rights and responsibilities regarding special education. Parents can deny placement or enforce it. Education is needed for the parent in order for special education to assist the child, not stigmatize the learner.

The use of biased test should be eliminated for the sake if the Black student. If not eliminated, at least modified. This modification will allow for the inclusion of Black students when the tests are being formulated and normed. Other instruments should be brought forth to substitute for the placement test, such as team teaching, peer tutoring, and cooperative learning. All of the other resources should be exhausted before considering the biased placement test. Also the traditional diagnostic decision of the teacher should be removed from the process. Teachers are not trained to construct psychological tests nor how to use the results in the curriculum. The placement of Black children in special education classes is accomplished in part by the referral of the classroom teachers' documentation and psychological testing. With the passage of PL-94-142 requiring the placement of handicapped pupils in the least restrictive environment, the regular classroom teacher can increasingly be expected to make diagnostic decisions. However, teachers traditionally have not been well-trained in test construction and use (Grant, 1992). These suggestions cannot be executed overnight, yet some efforts can be made to lower the number of Black students in special education. There may very well be a large proportion of Black students that need to be in special education programs. But there very well may not. The use of Black psychologists, increased parental involvement, extensive cultural testing practices is a beginning for decreasing the number of African-American students in these programs. These proposed solutions could be the start of a new evaluation process, which could ultimately curtail the number of Black students currently enrolled in special education, who should not be there in the first place.

Research Questions

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the degree to which Black students, especially Black males are overrepresented and oftentimes misplaced in special education. Specific questions to be answered were:

  1. Would increased parental support help to decrease the number of Black special education cases?
  2. Would the increased utilization of Black psychologists ensure cultural understanding in the evaluation process?
  3. Would a culture-sensitive test help to decrease the number of Black special education cases?
  4. Would an improved cultural training program provide teachers with the basic tools necessary to understand Black children instead of staffing them into special education?

Significance of Study

The evaluation of Black students' placement into special education leaves much to be desired. The method of testing is inconsistent and invalid. In the area of test bias, researchers have found that Black students are less likely to score well on particular types of tests, such as intelligence tests, because of past life experience rather tan by reason of innate ability. Questions on intelligence test are most often are taken from life experiences afforded in middle class society (Serwatka, et al. 1986).


The purpose of this study was to determine the degree to which Black students are overrepresented and oftentimes misplaced in special education, as a result of current testing and placement practices, insufficient parental knowledge of special education rights and responsibilities, and the need for more cultural diversity training at the college and university level. This study was conducted using the interview as qualitative research. Special education professionals currently involved with Black special education students were queried. This method was supplemented by classroom observations in a Chicago Public School.


Subjects for this study were two educational professional and a group of special education students. The setting for this study was on the West Side of Chicago. This is a low socio-economic area, with a high crime rate. The school has an enrollment of approximately 1,400 students, with 20% being diagnosed as special education students or educable mentally handicapped. The ethnic composition of the school is predominantly, if not totally African-American. One of the educational professionals is an African-American female with 18 years experience in special education programs. She has also earned the credentials to become Chair of the Special Education Department. In this position, she is aware of all of the activities in the special education department. She enforces practices and policies as well as maintaining a class for the educable mentally handicapped. The other educational professional is the principal of this school. He has been principal for just about 3 years. He is also African-American. He is not an authority in special education, yet he does understand the policies and procedures associated with implementing the program in his building. He does not have much contact with the special education students, unless there is a serious behavioral problem that has to be solved. Procedures The investigator developed an interview (See Appendix A) which was designed to determine the extent to which Black students are misplaced in special education, through inadequate teacher preparation, parental involvement, the use of Black psychologists, and current testing practices. The two education professionals were interviewed for about half and hour each. The interview was conducted at the school in which they are both employed. The students were unknowingly observed by the interviewer to study their normal behavior in a special education setting. The students were familiar with the interviewer, thus avoiding an imbalance in the environment. The class was self-contained, with 10 students, all Black. There were four females and six males, all junior classmen. They were all diagnosed as being educable mentally handicapped.

Kimberly Peterz lives in Chicago with her two sons, ten years old and two years old. She has an M.A. in Early Childhood Education from Governors State University and a B.A. in Public Relations from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She currently teaches Kindergarten in the Chicago Public Schools.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 31, 1999.

Also see:

  • 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

  • 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