Two federal agencies currently report data on enrollment of students in special education programs broken down by racial/ethnic group: the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), both in the U.S. Department of Education. OSEP has reported for over two decades to Congress on the implementation of Public Law 94-142 (and later, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]), including data on the number of children served under the various disability categories. However, the child count data reported by OSEP were not broken down by racial/ethnic group until the last two reporting periods. OCR, in contrast, has consistently monitored minority representation, but only in the few disability categories with which it is concerned. Until 1994, these included mild mental retardation, emotional disturbance (ED), specific learning disabilities (LD), and speech and language impairments (SLI). Since that time, however, OCR has collected data on the broader category of mental retardation (MR), no longer differentiating “educable mental retardation” and “trainable mental retardation” (in earlier surveys) or among “mild mental retardation,” “moderate mental retardation,” and “severe mental retardation” (in the 1992 survey). In addition, in 1994 OCR discontinued monitoring of speech and language impairments and began monitoring enrollments in programs for gifted and talented students.
In federal reporting of data by race/ethnicity, five groups are specified: (1) American Indian/Alaskan Natives, (2) Asian/Pacific Islander, (3) Hispanics, (4) blacks, and (5) non-Hispanic whites. Using the OSEP and OCR datasets one is unable to examine rates for subgroups, such as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, or Mexican Americans as these are all aggregated into a single Hispanic category. And a student can be classified in only one group; “mixed race” is not an option.
Concern about overrepresentation of certain minority group children in special education has focused almost exclusively on a few disability categories. In the earlier NRC report (National Research Council, 1982) the focus was exclusively on children classified as mildly mentally retarded (MMR), the category at issue in litigation challenging the fairness of intelligence testing as the “reason” behind disproportionately high enrollments of black and Hispanic children in special education programs (Reschly, 1988a). In the years since that report, the focus has broadened to include LD and ED. Concern has been raised as well over the underrepresentation of children from these same minority groups in programs for the gifted and talented. The categories MMR, LD, ED, and gifted and talented are some-