Understanding the needs of students with or at-risk for disabilities

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State researchers are examining how students with or at-risk for disabilities can be better helped as they attend U.S. schools, through two new projects totaling nearly $1.2 million being funded by the National Center for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

Paul Morgan, Harry and Marion Eberly Fellow, professor of education and demography, and director of the Social Science Research Institute’s Center for Educational Disparities, is principal investigator of a project that is examining which students are being identified as having disabilities while attending U.S. schools.

Federal legislation and regulations require U.S. school districts to monitor whether students of color are overrepresented in special education. School districts reporting overrepresentation that exceeds pre-specified risk ratio thresholds are required to take corrective action including reallocating up to 15% of their federal special education funding.

Morgan’s previous work has consistently found that students of color are less likely, on average, to be identified as having disabilities than similarly situated students who are white.

“With the current project, we’ll further examine nationally representative data sets of students attending U.S. schools including at-risk subpopulations such as students with disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, low-income students, and language minorities,” said Morgan. “The lack of access to services based on race, ethnicity, or national origin may be exacerbating educational disparities in the U.S.”

The researchers will examine five sets of research questions and compare data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies of 1999 and 2011 as well as cross-sectional surveys of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They will examine how racial/ethnic disparities for special education in kindergarten through fifth grade has changed including changes for students with specific disability conditions and the benefits to students of receiving special education services.

Additionally, researchers will examine the role of school-level characteristics including academic achievement and learning-related behaviors as well as school-level socio-economic status and minority concentration in explaining disparities in disability identification. District- and state-level characteristics such as minority representation, poverty rates, and academic achievement will also be examined.

“We expect to observe the same disparities as in our prior work, in which white students are more likely to be identified as having disabilities. We will also examine whether these disparities are worsening, which our preliminary work indicates may be happening,” Morgan said.

“How other factors, such as socioeconomic status or academic performances of the school, affects these disparities remains to be well established. We hope to have a better understanding of how school and district contextual factors relate to disability identification, and how the delivery of special education services may be benefiting students," added Morgan.

Other researchers on the project are George Farkas, distinguished professor of education, University of California, Irvine; and former Penn State Assistant Director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research Yoonkyung Oh, currently assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

For the second project, of which Morgan is a co-principal investigator, the researchers will be analyzing data from two longitudinal studies to examine the relations between externalizing and internalizing behavior difficulties of students between the ages of five and six, and ages 12 to 13.

Externalizing problem behaviors include aggression, conduct problems, hyperactivity and attention problems, while internalizing problem behaviors include anxiety, fear, depression, and social withdrawal.

“While we know the co-occurrence of these two types of behavioral difficulties is substantial, especially in high-risk populations, it remains unclear for whom, how, and why these difficulties co-develop, and how these difficulties relate with other indicators of development including social, cognitive, and academic functioning over time,” said Morgan. “We also hope to discover how these difficulties operate differently across the grade levels and differ by disability, gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.”

The project will use secondary data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011 (ECLS-K: 2011) and the Family Life Project. The ECLS-K: 2011 includes a nationally representative sample of students who attended kindergarten in 2010-2011 until the end of fifth grade, while the Family Life Project followed children in six counties in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, recruited at birth in 2003-04.

Externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors were measured by teachers. Other factors including academic achievement, grade retention, executive functions and self-regulatory skills, teacher-child relationships, and peer relationships were also assessed.

“There are many theories to explain how these types of behavioral difficulties co-develop, but some of these accounts are conflicting or have limited empirical support. So, we hope to advance the field’s limited knowledge base and help inform interventions for children at risk for experiencing co-existing externalizing and internalizing behavioral difficulties,” Morgan said.

Oh also is involved in this project, serving as principal investigator.

Last Updated April 15, 2021