Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Student Selection into Special Education in Early Childhood

Thursday, November 12, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Parsons, University of Missouri
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) tasks the public school system with identifying students with disabilities and providing them with a free appropriate public education. The special education system plays a large role in public schools, with 11.7% of public school students receiving special education services or accommodations in 2012 (NCES Digest of Statistics). These supports help make public education accessible to students whose functioning and academic performance in the typical classroom setting would otherwise suffer due to their disabilities.

However, an ample body of evidence suggests that students in special education are disproportionally represented along a number of dimensions, including gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (Losen & Orfield, 2002; Shifrer, Muller, & Callahan, 2011). This is a matter of concern because students who are placed into special education have poorer academic outcomes, as well as poorer labor market outcomes after leaving school (Cross & Donovan, 2002; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997). The current system of special education thus raises questions of equity and fairness, particularly if certain groups are systematically overrepresented. In this descriptive analysis, I address the following research questions: (1) What characteristics in early childhood (demographic, family, child development, parenting practices) predict child placement into special education in kindergarten? (2) Does special education placement differ by type of school (traditional public school vs. charter, magnet, or other choice school)?

In this study, I use nationally representative data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). These data contain a wealth of child and family demographic characteristics, health history, and cognitive, language, and motor development, which are drawn from administrative birth certificate data and surveys of parents, schools, and teachers. Using multivariate regression, I examine individual-level characteristics as predictors of placement in special education in kindergarten, indicated by a student’s having an Individualized Education Program (IEP). I also explore whether student representation in special education differs among different types of schools.

Preliminary results suggest that children who are English-language learners and from minority race/ethnic backgrounds are in fact underrepresented in special education in kindergarten, after conditioning on the full set of covariates. Students who attend choice schools in kindergarten were more likely to have an IEP than traditional public school students. These results may be of interest to education policy makers. States and school districts are afforded wide latitude in setting their own eligibility determination guidelines for special education. One possible implication of my findings is that this degree of discretion may be resulting in inequitable school settings that are not serving all students as intended.