KMUZ Interview on Racial Disproportionality in Special Education in Oregon

on-the-air-radio-interviewsOn August 21st, 2015, I met with Deanne Bass from KMUZ Radio in Salem, OR to talk about racial disproportionality in special education in Oregon.  I’ve included the audio files in this post.  Please listen to them and share your comments.

KMUZ Part 1 2015-08-21

KMUZ Part 2 2015-08-21

KMUZ – FM is a community radio broadcaster serving the mid-Willamette Valley. KMUZ is the voice for those not represented by commercial radio or other media. KMUZ broadcasts at 88.5 and 100.7 FM, streams at, and can be heard on smart phones and tablets with a Tunein Radio app.

Disproportionate Representation in Special Education in Oregon 2014-2015

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

rrr or 2015 black

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.

Hispanic Students

rrr or 2015 hispanic

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

rrr or 2015 amind

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

rrr or 2015 asianpi

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

Data Snapshot: School Discipline

On Friday while I was doing some research for a paper that I’m writing I ran across this data snapshot published by the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education. It contains so many interesting items that all reinforce why this work is so important. Please look this over when you get a chance and let me know in the comments if anything catches your attention.

OCR Data snapshot screenshot

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others

I was just looking over some employment ads on a local school district’s website.  I was very shocked to see this ad:

Position Description:   Special Education Program Assistant [school name redacted]

  • Under direct teacher supervision, performs a variety of tasks assisting the teacher in the development of an instructional program by working with students individually or in small groups. Prepares instructional materials, maintains classroom discipline, and conducts planned activities using teacher designated methods and materials.  In addition, provides assistance for the physically and mentally disabled, learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, culturally different, etc.

If you didn’t take the time to read the whole ad, I want to direct your attention to the last line.  Even ignoring the lack of person-first language, did you notice how “culturally different” is lumped in with the three federally recognized disability categories?  Is it any surprise that this school district might be having problems with the disproportionate representation of African American students in special education programs?  I was stopped in my tracks when I read that.  Wow.

DR in Special Education in Oregon 2013-2014

Disproportionate Representation (DR) of African American students in special education occurs when we find more African American students in special education than we would expect based on their frequency in the general population. I just completed compiling the representation data from Oregon from the December 1st, 2013 child count survey. The child count survey is a federal report that the state governments have to file with the federal department of education every year. Because enrollment fluctuates so much throughout a school year, they have chosen that whatever the count is at the end of the day on December 1st is the number that is the “official count” for that school year.

Before you continue, let me point out that DR is measured as a ratio called the Relative Risk Ratio (RRR).  It’s the percent of a target group in special education divided by the percent of kids in all other target groups in special education.  A RRR of 1.0 means that it’s just as likely that a student from the target group would be in special education as would a student of any other target group.  Above 1.0 means they are more likely to be in special education than other students, and lower than 1.0 means they are less likely to be in special education than a student of any other race.  The field has said that 10% (or .1 RRR) above or below 1.0 is not significant.

Here’s what I found:


In Oregon on December 1st, 2013, African American students are underrepresented in Autism.  This is the same result that I found in Minnesota’s data.

African American students are slightly overrepresented in the categories of Orthopedic Impairments, Speech and Language Impairments, and Visual Impairments.

The categories that show extreme overrepresentation are Intellectual Disabilities, Hearing Impairments, Other Health Impairments (oftentimes ADD/ADHD, but not exclusively), and Specific Learning Disabilities.  Just as in Minnesota, the category of Emotional Disturbance is scandalously out of whack.  African American students are 2.5x more likely to be diagnosed with an Emotional Disturbance in Oregon than a student of another race.  My research points me toward a reason for that, but do you have any ideas?


For your information I am also including here the graph of the DR in autism:



White students are found to have autism at approximately 1.5x that of students from other races.  Any thoughts about why that is?