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What is Disproportionality?
In recent years, school districts have been looking at disproportionality more closely — especially as to how it pertains to general enrollment, special programs, and disciplinary actions. But not all educators understand what disproportionality is — or why it matters.
A hand cupped under a circle in which a slice is cut out.

In recent years, school districts have been looking at disproportionality more closely — especially as to how it pertains to general enrollment, special programs, and disciplinary actions. But not all educators understand what disproportionality is — or why it matters. As it becomes a requirement of state regulations, it’s important for educators and districts to understand what disproportionality is so they can be sure to not only remain in compliance but plan accordingly.   

So what is disproportionality exactly? In education, it refers to whether distinct populations are represented proportionally to others. In special education, disproportionality occurs when there is an over-representation of specific groups in special education when compared to the representation of that subgroup in the overall enrollment of the district. For gifted programs or honors or advanced placement (AP) courses, disproportionality refers to the under-representation of specific subgroups. Disproportionality also refers to the over-representation of specific subgroups who are the subject of discipline, particularly more severe forms of student discipline such as out-of-school suspension. 

The concept of tracking and correcting disproportionality was first introduced through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997. States were required to report the number of African American students in their special education population and the number of African American students who were suspended from school. The regulation was designed to ensure that students of color with disabilities were protected from over- and under-identification, segregation, and harsh discipline. States were to hold districts accountable to correct significant disparities. 

However, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) left it to the states to determine how to calculate disproportionality and what percentage of disproportionality was acceptable. In 2004, an IDEA revision shifted the emphasis from correcting existing disparities to preventing them in the first place — an anticipatory stance rather than a reactionary one. To support these efforts, districts were encouraged to focus on effective pre-referral interventions, behavioral intervention systems, and more. In 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the 2011-2012 data annually collected by OCR. The resulting report showed that African American students were three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled from school. One out every four African American male special education students was suspended. 

Yet according to the data collected by OCR, only 2-3% of all school districts in the country were identified as having significant disproportionality. Additionally, of those districts reporting significant disproportionality, 75% of them were located in seven states — out of 50 total — and Washington, D.C. 22 states reported no districts with significant disproportionality. The GAO and OCR concluded that the discretion states set the bar so high, resulting in a general failure to accurately identify significant disproportionality that the data clearly showed was occurring. 

Consequently, OCR revised the regulations in 2016. The 2016 Equity in IDEA regulations mandated all states to use a specific method (risk/ratio) to calculate disproportionality. They also defined a lower threshold of “significant disproportionality” that triggered corrective action; greatly expanded the subgroups who were considered to be minorities; and reduced the minimum number of enrolled minority students for a district to be accountable under the new regulations.* 

Additionally, they expanded the categories under consideration to include not just classification, but classification under particular eligibility categories, such as intellectual disability and autism, more restrictive placements (self-contained or out of district), and in-school suspension, in addition to out-of-school suspension. The new regulations allowed states to use up to three consecutive years of data to identify a district as having significant disproportionality in need of corrective action. 

Districts found to have a significant disproportionality are required to use 15% of their entire IDEA grant allocation to address the factors contributing to the significant disproportionality. For district leadership, the process often includes reviewing and revising policies, practices, and procedures and publicly reporting such revisions. Districts are also encouraged to focus on providing services to children ages 3-grade 12, using this as an opportunity to identify struggling learners sooner rather than later, regardless of whether the child has a disability. With early identification, districts can prevent the overuse of classification for special education as a means of addressing struggling learners and instead shift to creating tiered systems of supports.

These 2016 changes to disproportionality criteria would result in many more districts being cited for significant disproportionality and subject to mandated corrective action. The good news is that there are tangible pathways to remediating disproportionality — many of which we discuss in our next blog! In the meantime, our team of experts at Magnolia Consulting Group can support you in your efforts to regain proportionality. Reach out to us at [email protected] today!


*The high minimum cell size meant that many predominantly Caucasian districts were excluded from accountability. For example, if a district had 2000 students and only 40 were African American but all 40 were in special education or all 40 had been suspended out of school during the year, the district would not be held accountable for such extreme disproportionality because it had too few enrolled minority students to be required to be accountable under the old regulations.