How to ensure equity in IDEA

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Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas

The U.S. Department of Education is considering delaying the new “Equity in IDEA” regulations. These regulations expand federal monitoring of whether U.S. schools are over-identifying children as having disabilities based on their race or ethnicity.

The regulations mandate that U.S. states use a standard methodology to examine whether “significant disproportionality” is occurring in school districts. If so, then school districts must reallocate their federal funding to reduce the disproportionality. They must also review their disability identification practices, policies, and procedures.

Although well intentioned, the Equity in IDEA regulations are misdirected. This is because they do not address the true inequity: Federal legislation and policy should be monitoring for under-identification, not over-identification.

Minority children are less likely to be identified as having disabilities than otherwise similar white or English-speaking children while attending U.S. schools. This has been reported across many peer-reviewed studies.

The Equity in IDEA regulations use risk ratios and thresholds to monitor for whether schools are racially discriminatory in how they identify children as having disabilities. Yet risk ratios do not tell policymakers whether schools are being racially discriminatory in their disability identification practices. This is because risk ratios do not adjust for variability in children’s clinical needs for services. Using such flawed indicators will misdirect federal civil rights efforts and may unintentionally limit access by minority children with disabilities to beneficial special education services.

The right way to monitor for whether U.S. schools are racially discriminatory in their disability identification practices is to examine whether schools are treating similarly situated children differently. For instance, policymakers might investigate whether, among similarly achieving children attending the same schools, those who are black are more or less likely to be identified than those who are white. Both the National Research Council and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights use this “differential treatment” standard to examine for racial discrimination.

Using similarly situated contrasts would help address the many problems resulting from Equity in IDEA’s use of risk ratios, which may instead reflect differences in underlying prevalence rates.

There is good reason to think that disability prevalence rates differ between minority and white children in the U.S. Minority children are disproportionately exposed to lead, are more likely to be born with low birthweight and to have higher blood pressure, and experience other gestational and environmental risks for disability as a result of their greater likelihood of growing up in poverty.

Yet, and despite their greater risk factor exposure, there is also good reason to believe that minority children are instead under-identified by U.S. schools as having disabilities. In fact, in ten peer-reviewed studies analyzing over forty nationally representative samples of children attending U.S. schools, we find that under-identification is both widespread and longstanding.

The under-identification of minority children’s disability occurs both generally and across many specific conditions. Under-identification is evident before as well as after school entry. Minority children are less likely than similarly situated white children to be identified as having autism, learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, ADHD, behavioral disabilities, other health impairments, or even very low prevalence disabilities like visual or hearing impairments.

That is, we repeatedly find that children who are white and English-speaking are far more likely to be identified as having disabilities and so of receiving special education services than similarly situated minority children. This includes those displaying the same clinical needs, coming from similarly resourced families, and attending the same schools.

For example, among fourth grade children with clinically significant reading difficulties, we find that 74 percent of white children are receiving special education services. The contrasting percentages for black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian children are only 44 percent, 43 percent, 34 percent, and 48 percent, respectively. U.S. schools may be biased against identifying minority children as having disabilities.

Minority children’s under-identification has been occurring in the U.S. since at least 2003. These findings are also consistent with those reported by public health researchers.

Unrecognized disabilities may partially explain both racial achievement gaps in the U.S. and the school-to-prison pipeline. U.S. schools are more likely to criminalize the behavioral problems of minority children including through suspension and expulsion yet provide treatment for the same behaviors of white children. Many adolescents and adults in the criminal justice system, who are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities, have unrecognized disabilities.

Why are minority children so much less likely to be identified as having disabilities than similarly situated white children? Teachers may not recognize that a disability may underlie repeated academic difficulties. Minority parents and community members lack access to evidence-based information about the signs and symptoms for disabilities. Minority parents of children with disabilities report stigma as well as dismissive providers. Materials used by U.S. schools to explain the special education system often require college level schooling to understand. And federal legislation and policy, including the new Equity in IDEA regulations, may be unintentionally limiting access to special education services by minority children with disabilities.

What can be done to ensure equity in IDEA? Teachers and parents should have better access to evidence-based information about disabilities. The special education system should not rely so heavily on teacher referral. Instead, U.S. schools should use universal screenings. Universal screenings have helped address minority children’s under-identification for both gifted education and pediatric care. Federal legislators and policymakers should use the best available empirical evidence to ensure that the civil rights of minority children with disabilities are being protected as they attend U.S. schools.

This empirical evidence consistently indicates that minority children are less likely to be identified as having disabilities than similarly situated white and English-speaking children attending U.S. schools. Federal legislators and policymakers should be monitoring for under-identification. Such civil rights monitoring could be done through analyses of the NAEP as well as state or local datasets that approximate contrasts between similarly situated children including those who are similarly achieving. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights could then investigate districts that are observed in these analyses to be differentially identifying similarly situated children. These efforts would do far more to ensure equity in the U.S. special education system than the current Equity in IDEA regulations.

Paul L. Morgan, Ph.D., is a Professor of Education and Demography at Penn State, where he directs the Center for Educational Disparities Research. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulMorganPhD.

George Farkas, Ph.D., is a Professor of Education at the School of Education, the University of California, Irvine.

Editor’s note: A piece similar to this one originally appeared in the Washington Post

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.