Education Equity Insights Part 5: Disproportionality & Students with Disabilities

Julie Bollmer

Recent national data reveal ongoing educational inequities impacting students of color with disabilities. The data conveyed that Black or African American students are twice as likely to be identified as having an intellectual disability than their peers, and Black or African American students with disabilities are nearly 4 times more likely to be suspended from school for 10+ days than all other students.

Westat’s IDEA Data Center (IDC) supports strategies to alert states and districts to these types of disproportionalities in special education and to team up to use data to promote equity for students with disabilities. Here, Westat Associate Director Julie Bollmer, Ph.D., who directs the IDEA Data Center, discusses what we can learn from the data and the promising practices that IDC has fostered that are helping districts move in the direction of real change.

Q: Why are data foundational to addressing inequities in special education?

A: When districts or schools over-identify children as having disabilities based on race or ethnicity, place them in more restrictive settings, or discipline them at significantly higher rates than their peers, it can lead to negative educational outcomes for these children. Data are critical in that they help identify where disproportionality based on race or ethnicity is occurring and then can help districts and schools find the root of the problem so they can systemically address the disproportionality.

Q: How does Westat’s IDC support states and districts in using data to explore the underlying reasons for disproportionality?

A: One important way was to bring state and district staff together at the first ever Significant Disproportionality Summit in November 2021 to discuss strategies, processes, and infrastructures related to addressing racial or ethnic disproportionality. We aimed to help participants learn how to cultivate robust stakeholder engagement, conduct root cause analyses, address different types of disproportionality, and evaluate the improvement strategies they implement to reduce disparities. Several states and districts also shared their successes in reducing disproportionality.

Michael Yudin, former Assistant Secretary for Special Education at the U.S. Department of Education, gave the keynote address for the Summit and was very complimentary of our approach saying that IDC was “an incredible partner throughout his tenure” and “is still clearly critical to improving outcomes and opportunities for kids with disabilities.”

Q: How else does Westat help them address educational inequities?

A: Another initiative is through IDC’s Success Gaps Toolkit, which guides districts and school leaders through the process of examining different aspects of their educational systems to discover why inequities exist. This approach focuses on fixing the educational systems and avoids the perception that it’s the kids who need “fixing” since it’s the systems that have failed to ensure that all groups of children have equitable opportunities.

We also provide individualized technical assistance (TA) to states and districts around all of the IDEA-related equity requirements. We support them on issues related to methodology and calculations, identifying and convening stakeholder groups, collecting and analyzing data, reporting their data to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), developing meaningful action plans, and evaluating the improvement strategies they put in place to ensure they are moving in the right direction to improve students’ education and eliminate inequities.

Q: Westat has been working with OSEP on issues related to racial or ethnic disproportionality in special education for over 2 decades. What expertise has Westat brought to this work and how has it supported OSEP?

A: Westat brings a deep understanding of the IDEA data to this work. Our initial work with OSEP 2 decades ago involved identifying methods for states to use to analyze their data and identify disproportionality in special education. We have expanded our reach by partnering with states to help them delve into these complex issues and make progress toward reducing inequities. OSEP still relies on our expertise and continues to call upon our staff to share our knowledge with them.

We have expanded our reach by partnering with states to help them delve into these complex issues and make progress toward reducing inequities. OSEP still relies on our expertise and continues to call upon our staff to share our knowledge with them.

- Julie Bollmer, Ph.D., Associate Director, Education Studies

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