The U.S. Department of Education should exercise caution in collecting and analyzing data on students with disabilities based on their racial and ethnic backgrounds because of the unique circumstances of each students’ special needs, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) warns in a letter responding to a request for comment.
NSBA urges the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) to hold off on policies for the data collection until it develops a cost-neutral solution that adequately accounts for differences among states and school districts, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Further, OSERS risks overstepping its regulatory authority, NSBA cautions.
OSERS is seeking ways to collect extensive data based on race and ethnicity of students with disabilities to address the issue of significant disproportionality. The main federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires states to collect and examine data to determine whether there are disproportionate numbers of students, based on race and ethnicity, identified as disabled.
For instance, the law requires states to examine the numbers of students identified with particular impairments; the placement of children in particular educational settings; and the incidence, duration, and type of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions, to determine if the law is being applied correctly. If significant disproportionality is found, states must take action and direct a portion of federal IDEA funding toward fixing the situation.
But this type of information could be misinterpreted and lead to mislabeling of schools, NSBA says. It also would be costly, and that money might be better spent on educational services for students with disabilities.
OSERS requested comment on how it could build a “standard approach” to ensure states and school districts do not have significant disproportionality, and how to account for the inherent differences between individual states and school districts.
NSBA noted that there are many factors to consider, including:
• The demographics of student populations, including the number of students identified for special
education, change from year to year;
• Staff turnover and a national shortage of K-12 teachers certified in special education, which impacts
the number of personnel available at each school who are trained in the identification and evaluation process; and
• Redistricting and school consolidation directly impact student population data and can appear as disparities.
Most importantly, data should not be read or interpreted in a vacuum, NSBA says. For instance, small school districts or school districts with only small percentages of minority students might have a small number of minority students with disabilities, but proportionately those students can make up a sizable percentage of the special education enrollment and appear to be disproportionate.