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The Overrepresentation of Black Students
in Special Education Classrooms

Kimberly Suzette Peterz
Chicago, Illinois

The purpose of this research was to evaluate 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. The two subjects interviewed were a special education teacher/chairperson and a principal; both employed in the same school. A class of special education students was unknowingly observed. Interview responses show little satisfaction with the current methods of placing Black children into special education programs. The observations demonstrated that the majority of the children did not need to be placed there. The use of Black psychologists, increased parental support and knowledge, a non-biased test for placement and increased preservice and inservice training was recommended.


The steady increasing number of Black students placed in special education has been recognized, but still not resolved. One State Department of Education supports the fact that today this problem remains unresolved. The Florida Department of Education, a state which keeps some of the most accurate records on the racial and ethnic composition of special education classrooms, reports that for the last past five years the percentage of Black students in classes for educable mentally retarded pupils has exceeded the generally accepted 2% expected level (Bureau of Education for Exceptional Students, 1985). Not only is this data alarming, but it has also been recognized that some Blacks, mostly males, are misdiagnosed or misplaced into special education programs. The numbers are disproportionate and an overrepresentation of Black placed in special education. A continuing problem in the public school system is the disproportionate and overrepresentation of Black students in certain types of special education classrooms ( Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1983). Along with the overrepresentation of this same group of students are classrooms for gifted pupils (Bureau of Education for Exceptional Students, 1985). Gifted children who are culturally different, are overlooked because many of them are underachievers (Wilgosh, 1991).

The overrepresentation of Black students, especially Black males, is due to biased testing and the cultural misunderstanding of Black people. Some educators responsible for teaching Black students are not aware of the cultural differences and backgrounds of Black students, and therefore view these differences as learning disability (Reschly, 1980). Researchers who question the practices that lead to this disproportionate and overrepresentation of Black students in particular types of special education classrooms suggest that this phenomena may occur in part because of biased testing practices (Reschly, 1980), and because of the cultural differences of Black students and the way the educators view these differences (Gilbert & Gay, 1985). Educators must be aware of the cultural differences that manifest themselves through intelligence testing and sometimes in the classroom. This dilemma of Black overrepresentation in special education will not be resolved until changes are made in the training of teachers, new culture-sensitive testing practices, and more involvement with Black psychologist for evaluation purposes. Black psychologists are more familiar with the Black culture; therefore they understand Black children better. But above all, this will never be conquered without parental involvement and their comprehension of their rights. Parents are not aware of their rights and the rights of their children. In programs to educate parents of these rights and their responsibilities, time needs to be spent on helping parents develop strategies for securing these rights (Serwatka, Dove & Hodge, 1986).

Review of Literature

There is an increasing dilemma of Black students being staffed into special education classes. The method of determining how students are placed is also disturbing. In categories where placement is dependent upon tests that have been reported to be biased against minorities, Black students represent an excessively high percentage of students enrolled in these classes. The fact that Black students constitute 38% of the student population in classes for educable mentally retarded pupils demonstrates this (Serwatka, et al. 1986). In contrast, when placement is based on measures that are not known to be discriminatory, the percentage of Black students enrolled in classes is more closely commensurate with the percentage of Black students enrolled in the overall public school population (Serwatka, et al. 1986). We know that these tests have figured prominently in the destruction of self-concept and denial of certain educational opportunities (Hale, 1986). If one understands that the young black male is a target for destruction, then one might reasonably be suspicious of the present use of PL-94-142, which has supported the fact that 84% of all Blacks in special education are male (Grant, 1992). The recent decline in scholastic achievement test scores indicates American education is not improving. Although more students are taking the SAT, African-American males continue to remain at the bottom of the academic rung where they have customarily ranked (Gill, 1992).

In the case of Larry P. versus Riles, a number of Black elementary school children asked the California Circuit Court to issue an injunction preventing the San Francisco school district from using IQ tests to place any Black children in special classes for the educable mentally retarded. Plaintiffs claimed that because the IQ tests themselves were biased, use of such tests for placement purposes constituted a violation of their fourteenth amendment rights (Grant, 1992). Of most concern was the disproportionate numbers of minority children in educable mentally retarded classes, relative to their numbers in the general population (Kubiszyn, 1990). The problem of placing Blacks in special education classes becomes very acute when one realizes that African-American students are more frequently placed in more restrictive, self-contained classes than in less restrictive special education classes (Grant, 1992). Black children constitute 17% of all students, but comprise 41% of all special education placements, primarily educable mentally retarded and behavior disorders. Black boys disproportionately are 85% of the Blacks in special education (Grant, 1992).

Not only is testing a bias culprit of misdiagnosis and overrepresentation, but the ignorance of cultural differences is also a factor in the process. Various explanations have been offered as to why this disproportionate and overrepresentation of Black students in particular types of special education classrooms occurs (Sewatka, et al. 1986). In the area of cultural differences, writers have pointed out that professionals in education may view cultural differences among Black students as an indicator of deficiencies (Hilliard, 1980). This perception can lead to a student being identified as being below normal or abnormal on measures of adaptive behaviors. Gilbert and Gay (1985) suggest that Black students who are misdiagnosed and misplaced are often having difficulty in the regular classroom because this education environment is not set up to meet the needs of culturally different students. Placement is special education classes do little is anything to solve the original problem. This is because special education classrooms are likewise not set up to meet the needs of students with cultural differences. Thus, the Black student who is placed in special education classrooms, because of displayed cultural differences, eventually will begin to display the characteristics of a disabled student (Serwatka, et al. 1985). Another controversial cause of the misplacement of Blacks is low self-esteem. It is suggested that placement in a special education classroom and the concomitant effects of such a placement over time may be sufficient to cause the student to take on the characteristics of the disability even when the original placement was based on misdiagnosis (Reschly, 1980). Black children possess enthusiasm and eager interest, however, by fifth grade the liveliness and interest are gone, replaced with passivity and apathy (Grant, 1992). Several visionary and sensitive educators are leading a small vanguard of individuals attracting attention to the root cause of low levels of self-esteem and poor scholastic achievement in African-American males (Gill, 1992). Spencer Holland, Director of the Center for Educating African-American males and the impetus behind Project 2000, cites poor academic achievement as one reason for the low level of self-esteem in adolescent African-American males (Gill, 1992). Lisa Clark Evans, a fifth grade teacher in a multiethnic classroom in San Diego, California, expresses a view held by many elementary school teachers. One reason some African-American students experience low self-esteem is that they have not been taught by teachers and parents the personal discipline it takes to be an achiever (Gill, 1992). Scholastic achievement levels can be improved in African-American male students by focusing in self-esteem as well as curricular and learning styles which tap non-European processes (Gill, 1992). Although there is not a current solution in place, several proposed answers are emerging. The solutions to the plight of the Black child would be (1) amending current testing practices within the school system, (2) working with parents, and (3) promoting a culture-sensitive curriculum.

The body, which would appear most able to direct these types of coordinated implementation, is of course, the local public school system (Serwatka, et al. 1986). It appears that an organized implementation of efforts to solve the problem of disproportionate and overrepresentation of Black students in special education classrooms will require a grassroots organization to assume leadership responsibility (Serwatka, et al. 1986). A first step, which needs to be undertaken, is getting public school systems to change present testing and placement practices used in placing students in special education classes (Serwatka, et al. 1986). Certain changes that could help eliminate the overrepresentation of Black children in special education, would be to change to non-biased testing; The SOMPA (System of Multicultural Pluralistic Assessment). This testing instrument is non-biased toward all ethnic groups. The use of Black psychologist in the evaluation of Black students for special education would help alleviate the problem of cultural misunderstanding. A second step which would aid in solving the problem of Black student disproportionality and overrepresentation in special education classes, is the use of psychologists who are familiar with the cultural background of student being tested and with whom the students are comfortable (Reschly, 1980). Researchers state that the education of current and future teachers also needs to be revamped. A third step in helping to solve the problem under discussion involves both public schools and college and university teacher training programs. If a Black student is to be identified only when there is merely a display of cultural difference, the educators working with a child must understand and be sensitive to those cultural differences. Likewise, if classrooms in both regular and special education are to meet the needs of Black students in the best manner possible, classroom teachers and the designers of the instructional curricula, must be familiar with the culture of this group of students. The only way this awareness can be developed is by systematically preservicing and inservicing educators in this field of study (Hilliard, 1980). College and university training programs also need to strengthen their offerings in t his area of study and need to require that all student enrolled in education courses at all levels take courses in the field of cultural diversity and difference (Serwatka, et al. 1986). In the area of working with parents, the suggestions revolve around one cultural theme; that theme being the educating of parents with reference to their rights, their children's rights, and their responsibilities as parents. Parents need to be made aware that they have a right to allow or disallow testing of their child for possible placement (Serwatka, et al. 1986). They also have a right to request that the testing process be conducted with the use of instruments like SOMPA and administered by a Black psychologist, when this seem appropriate. Parents also should be made aware of their right to accept or reject the findings of such testing and that they can and should participate in planning the educational program for this child, if special education placement is deemed appropriate. Along with being informed of these rights and responsibilities, parents need to be educated concerning what the effects of misdiagnosis can be as well as concerning the benefits of special education for students who are disabled (Serwatka, et al. 1986).

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