How the IDEA Obscures Where Help is Needed Most

The IDEA includes twenty indicators meant to measure of the effectiveness of special education programming and adherence to special education law. States, districts, and schools must report performance according to these indicators. The relative success of the IDEA hinges on such reports, as they reveal areas of progress and need. Much like in the classroom, if diagnostic tools are flawed or used incorrectly, educators cannot design useful interventions. Two particular indicators seem to have potential for misinterpretation or misuse.

Indicators 9 and 10 are compliance indicators measuring the percent of students from specific racial or ethnic groups receiving special education services due to inappropriate identification. Indicator 9 is the percent receiving services, while Indicator 10 is the percent in specific disability categories. Emphasis is crucial. As with many other indicators, these are not measures of student need. Instead, these are measures of appropriate school practices.

The first aim of Indicators 9 and 10 is to identify significant disproportionality, or a disproportionate number of students receiving services from specific groups. An example would be a district with a 50% Black overall population, but a 75% Black special education population. Another example would be 30% of Latino students receiving special education services versus 5% of Asian students. If significant disproportionality exists, the second aim is to scrutinize identification methods for possible biases leading to over-representation, and to correct these methods should biases exist.

Over-identification of students with disabilities would be a problem. Special education services are restrictions by law. Restrictions limit access to the general education curriculum to which all students are entitled. Unnecessary restrictions would infringe upon rights. Additionally, special education services are costly. Educational funding should not be spent erroneously.

Importantly, these indicators are not mere protections against unneeded services and costs. They are protections against perceived discrimination. The IDEA acknowledges over-representation of particular racial and ethnic groups. Indicators 9 and 10 are meant to rule out discrimination as a cause. Though biased or misused identification practices could explain some over-representation, the implication that school practices might be the principle culprit is part of a larger trend.

Schools may over-identify students from some groups, or they may have historically. Indicators 9 and 10 have been in place long enough to expect the correction of flawed instruments. To an earlier point, assessments must be accurate to be useful. Test makers have redesigned instruments to eliminate racial bias, and schools have worked to eliminate discriminatory practices. Indicators 9 and 10 remain in the IDEA, forcing schools to be vigilant.

Beyond the IDEA, schools have felt significant pressure regarding other forms of over-representation. Suspensions have been a recently popular media target, with advocates claiming schools suspend too many students from specific groups. Graduation rates for specific groups have been a perennial topic. Amid this pressure, a question remains. What if students from specific groups are not being over-identified? Specifically concerning special education, what if they really need services more often than students from other groups?

The most over-represented groups in special education are Black and Latino students. Advocates and professional organizations point to failing schools contributing to an achievement gap. Certainly, many schools are poorly equipped to serve their underprivileged students, just as some identification methods may be inadequate. In both instances, the notion that the students themselves are disproportionately needy is unpopular. Though unpopular, it might be true.

Black and Latino students experience poverty at higher rates than White and Asian students. Poverty is highly correlated with dozens of factors that inhibit school performance. Populations with high rates of poverty should need extra support in schools, and over-representation in special education populations should not be surprising. Compliance with the IDEA forces schools to be wary of identifying too many of these students. Over-identification also feeds the argument that schools discriminate. Both pressures could lead to schools identifying too few rather than too many.

Schools should not implement unneeded services. However, not implementing services to avoid implied discrimination might be worse than the implication. In an effort to undo discrimination, the IDEA fuels a potentially damaging trend. The insistence that schools create the lagging performance of specific students could lead to a refusal to admit where help is needed. The true burden rests with those who interpret and enforce the IDEA. An honest, clear-eyed approach to identifying needs must supersede pressure to blame schools for over-representation.

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How the IDEA Obscures Where Help is Needed Most

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