Source URL: View this document on the National Academies Press website

This article highlighted the role that evaluators play in perpetuating the achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. When an evaluator uses assessment procedures, such as standardized tests, that are biased against students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, it results in typically developing students being placed in special education where they are much less likely to graduate from high school and college.

Summary:  Special education and gifted and talented (GT) programs tend to have disproportionate representations for all minority children except Asian/Pacific Islanders. Culturally and linguistically diverse (minority) children are overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. The National Research Council (NRC) found that students from minority backgrounds who are typically developing, or even gifted and talented are often misdiagnosed with language and/or learning disabilities and placed in special education programs. Such misdiagnosis inevitably results in lower educational expectations and a vicious cycle of missed opportunities. This article provides explanations for the disproportion. First, according to the NRC, “there are biological and social/contextual contributors to early development that differ by race and that leave students differentially prepared to meet the cognitive and behavioral demands of schooling” (p. 357). An example of these contributors is poverty and its associations with low birth weight, exposure to toxins, and unsupportive childcare environments. Second, “The school experience itself contributes to racial disproportion in academic outcomes and behavioral problems that lead to placement in special and gifted education” (p. 358). For example, schools in low SES neighborhoods tend to have poor funding and lack experienced and well-trained teachers. The third explanation is that “Existing referral and assessment practices are racially biased” (p. 358) and fail to successfully distinguish minority children who truly need support services from those who do not. The other side of the issue is students who truly are gifted and talented but are not identified as such because of flawed assessment practices biased against minority students. They do not receive the benefit of having academic expectations raised. The NRC concluded that schools should be doing more in order to avoid misdiagnosis and misplacement of minority students. There should be a focus on addressing minority students’ tendency to have behavioral problems and deficits in reading skills. Focus should also move away from what the child cannot do to modifying the classroom environment and teaching strategies to enable all students to succeed.

Importance: This article highlighted the role that evaluators play in perpetuating the achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Like the NRC recommends, focus should no longer be placed on the child’s poor performance but on the poor abilities of teachers to modify their methods based on student needs. Instead of subjecting children to biased standardized assessments, teachers and clinicians should first provide some extra classroom attention to these students, and move onto further tiers of the RTI scale including small group teaching sessions (but still in the general education setting) for a period of time before special education is considered. These small but considerable changes in thinking and modifications to the classroom setting will likely decrease the number of wrongful placements in special education and increase the amount of children receiving appropriate educational placements and gifted and talented services.

National Research Council. (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education, M. Suzanne Donovan and Christopher T. Cross (Eds.). Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.