ethnic diversity and achievement and with why certain children are overrepresented in some special education programs and underrepresented in those for the gifted and talented.

Since the passage of the federal special education law in 1975, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), there has been racial disproportion in the assignment of students to special education, most persistently in the category of mental retardation but also in the categories of emotional disturbance and, increasingly, learning disabilities. Studies conducted early in the history of Public Law 94-142 (Brewer and Kakalik, 1974) noted that one of the major implementation problems associated with federal policy on special education was the mislabeling of students as handicapped. These studies note the vague and varying definitions of disability used across states and the confusion regarding both type and severity of educational need. The reports concluded that a fundamental issue confronting special education administrators was to identify and use nondiscriminatory devices and procedures. A 1970 survey of the 50 special education directors across the nation conducted by Goldstein et al. (1975) indicated that 56 percent considered mislabeling of students to be “the major controversy in special education today” (p.11).


In 1979 the National Academy of Sciences was asked to conduct a study to determine the factors accounting for the disproportionate representation of minority students and males in special education programs, specifically for students with mental retardation, and to identify placement criteria or practices that do not affect minority students and males disproportionately (National Research Council [NRC], 1982). Twenty years later, concern about the disproportionate representation of minority children in special education persists, and the NRC has been asked to revisit the issue.

Since the first NRC report, there have been a number of changes in general education as well as in special education. Increasing numbers of students are identified for special education services, and more students are receiving more of their special education and related services in general education classrooms. For example, between 1987-1988 and 1998-1999, there was a 35 percent increase in the number of students aged 6-21 served under the IDEA. Furthermore, 46 percent of all of these students spend less than 20 percent of their instructional time outside general education classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). For almost three decades, however, the basic tenets of the law covering the specific eligibility categories and criteria have remained virtually unchanged.

The country has also become increasingly diverse, changing the mix of children by race, ethnicity, and primary language in many school districts.

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