similar problems. Or it may be that teacher referral practices compensate for inadequate measurement tools.
Once students are referred for special education, they must be assessed as eligible or ineligible. Whether the assessment process is biased is as controversial as the referral process. A long-standing debate on IQ scores has no definitive resolution. Tests of “item bias” that examine whether the same questions differentiate high and low scorers across races generally find that they do. And the tests do have predictive validity with regard to school success. However, research on the effect of context, including familiarity with test taking and the norms and expectations of school, may depress the scores of students whose experiences prepare them least well for the demands of classrooms and standardized tests. To the extent that this is the case, test scores may be depressed overall, even if no item bias exists.
Whether the referral and assessment of students for special and gifted education are racially biased or not, we asked whether the right students are identified—students who need and can benefit from those programs. Here the committee’s answer is a more confident “no.” The subjectivity of the referral process, as well as the conceptual and procedural shortcomings of the assessment process for learning disabilities and emotional disturbance give little confidence that student needs have been appropriately identified. Moreover, current referral and assessment processes result in placements later in the education process than is most effective, providing a weak link between assessment and intervention.
Beyond understanding why there is disproportion, the committee was concerned with why disproportion is a problem. To address this issue, we asked a fourth question: Does special education and gifted education provide a benefit to students, and is that benefit different for different racial/ ethnic groups? However, the data that would allow us to answer the question adequately do not exist. We do know that some specific special education and gifted and talented interventions have been demonstrated to have positive outcomes for students. But how widely those interventions are employed is not known. Nor do we know whether minority students are less likely than majority students to be exposed to those high-quality interventions. What evidence there is suggests that parent advocacy and teacher instruction and experience, both of which would be expected to correlate with higher-quality interventions, are less likely to happen in higher-poverty school districts where minority children are concentrated.
Twenty years ago, the National Research Council (NRC) report, Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity based its recommendations on six principles that are as efficacious and insightful today as