District-Level Achievement Gaps Explain Black and Hispanic Overrepresentation in Special Education

George Farkas, Paul L. Morgan, Marianne M. Hillemeier, Cynthia Mitchell, Adrienne D. Woods

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


To examine whether special education racial risk ratios reported by U.S. school districts are explained by district-level confounds, particularly, racial achievement gaps, we analyzed merged data (N = 1,952 districts for Black–White comparisons; N = 2,571 districts for Hispanic–White comparisons) from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Stanford Educational Data Archive, and Common Core data sets. Regression analysis results indicated that Black– and Hispanic–White district risk ratios were strongly related to Black– and Hispanic–White district achievement gaps. These results reconcile findings from district-level data with those from student-level data and support the finding that, when compared to otherwise similar White students by controlling for group differences in achievement, non-White students are on average underrepresented in special education. That is, non-White overrepresentation in special education in most districts is explained by racial achievement gaps in these districts. Residuals from the regressions provide a more accurate way to monitor for outlier districts than the current practice required in federal regulations of using unadjusted risk ratios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)374-392
Number of pages19
JournalExceptional Children
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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