I have just completed my annual review of the proportions of representation across racial groups in special education here in Oregon for the 2014-2015 school year. Disproportionate representation is measured using the relative risk ratio. The relative risk ratio is calculated by using the following formula:
The relative risk ratio equals 1 when the representation is the same for the students of the specified race as it is for students of all other races. The field has agreed that a difference of 10% above or below exactly proportionate is acceptable, therefore relative risk ratios of .9 to 1.1 generally are of little concern.
Another issue to keep in mind as we look over this data is that the relative sizes of each group of students can play a small, but not non-existent, role in how this data should be interpreted. Because 64% of the school-aged students in Oregon are white, it would take a greater level of imbalance in the levels of proportionality to show up as dramatically as some of the smaller groups. For instance, it appears that there is an extreme overrepresentation of Asian American students in the category of deaf-blind. It appears this way because there are two Asian American students that have qualified for this very low-incidence category in the whole state while there are also only two white students who qualified, but because there are so many more white students, there are proportionally more Asian American students. I don’t have any hypotheses at the moment why the numbers exist this way.
Black students in Oregon are highly overrepresented in the categories of Emotional Disturbance, Other Health Impairments, Intellectual Disabilities, and Hearing Impairments. The data regarding Emotional Disturbance mirror national data that show black students highly overrepresented in this category. This table shows that Black students are two and a quarter times more likely to be identified with an emotional disturbance than a child of any other race. My hypothesis about why this is occurring is based on a lack of culturally relevant instruction and other social-economic issues that put these children at risk.
Regarding Hearing Impairments, 33 out of 13673 black students in Oregon schools are identified as having a hearing impairment, or about 1/4 of a percent. Among white students, only about 1/10th of a percent are diagnosed with hearing impairments. I have no hypotheses at the moment about why this is occuring.
Scholars have offered the question that if poverty is that which puts students at risk, why don’t we see a similar pattern of disproportionality for latino students as we do for black students. Notice that the data from this graph indicate that latino students are just half as likely as being diagnosed with an emotional disturbance as compared to all other students. This calls into serious question the idea that the data from the first graph on black students can all be attributed to socio-economic factors.
Latino students are at higher risk for being identified with specific learning disabilities as compared to all other students. This may be related to differing levels of literacy and/or numeracy that could be associated with second language acquistion or non-native English-speaking abilities. It has been noted that after students have tested out of available English-Language Learning (ELL) services, academic deficiencies are often referred to special education for evaluation.
Again we are seeing higher levels of hearing impairments among latino students as compared to other school-aged students. This is a new phenomena to me, so I don’t have any specific hypotheses about why this is occurring.
American Indian Students
American Indian students are at higher risk for identification for special education in all categories except autism. Many educational professionals’ first thought to explain this would be socio-economic status, but again we have to look at the graph for latino students to test the validity of that as a hypothesis
Asian & Pacific Islander Students
Asian & Pacific Islander American school-aged students show up almost across the board under represented in special education. In fact, the last bar on the right of the chart shows that they are half as likely to be identified as needing special education as compared to any other student. Hearing impairments are a suspicious outlier again. A New Yorker article in 1966 referred to Asian people as the “Model Minority” because they were so quiet and smart and hard-working. Either the article was right, or those stereotypes are pervasive in schools when we are noticing which students need additional supports. Being under represented can be as unfair as being overrepresented because students might be missing access to services that are necessary for them to do their best in school and life.
The source for this data is the Oregon Department of Education’s website which was accessed on August 21, 2015 at http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?=4280.