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Report Highlights Special-ed Disparity

TRENTON - A national education report released yesterday found that black students in New Jersey are 3.6 times more likely to be classified as mentally retarded than white students. That rate is higher than any other state's.

However, the state had the nation's lowest overall percentage of students designated mentally retarded - 3.2 percent, compared with the national average of 9.9 percent.

The findings for the 2002-03 school year came from the "Quality Counts" report published annually by the Education Week newspaper.

"The number is alarming," Haddon Township Superintendent Mark Raivetz said. "There has to be something wrong."

The study examined how states are complying with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires all students, including those with disabilities, to achieve proficiency on state standardized tests.

Although New Jersey has made improvements in special education, the report raised concerns by some educators and civil rights leaders that students may not be getting needed resources.

"It's a really complex thing that is linked to poverty more than anything else," said William Behre, chairman of the College of New Jersey's department of special education, language and literacy in Ewing. "School systems historically have treated black kids poorly, particularly black males."

Willingboro Superintendent Alonzo Kittrels said prejudice also could be a factor as educators strive to shrink the achievement gap between black and white students.

"We've been fighting it for years," Kittrels said. "People sitting in front of the classroom or that child-study team don't share the view or values of the students before them, and they are bringing their own prejudices to the table."

The report relies on federal and state education data but does not break down the information for specific school districts or factors that may have led to classifications, which may vary by state.

New Jersey uses strict guidelines based on intelligence tests and behavioral standards, which explains the small percentage of students classified as mentally retarded.

The racial disparity is less easily explained.

Nationally, black students are 2.3 times more likely than white students to be classified as mentally retarded, the report found. In Pennsylvania, black students are 1.5 times more likely to be classified. Hispanic students in New Jersey are 2.3 times more likely to be classified than white students.

A state project in New Jersey is looking into the reasons for the disparity.

"Our issue is to work with districts that have data that show this and to help them identify why this is happening," said Barbara Gantwerk, who oversees special education programs for the state.

Activists such as Walter Fields, publisher of thenorthstarnetwork.com, a black-issues Web site, said it was not clear whether racism or environmental factors were responsible for the classification disparity.

"I think the report on its face value is very troubling," said Fields, who advised former Gov. Jim Florio.

Previous studies have shown links between mental retardation in poverty-stricken areas where families do not have access to health care or where children have been exposed to lead paint. There have also been gaps in the educational programs or a lack of early childhood educational intervention.

The Education Week study noted that more than 95 percent of special-education students in New Jersey take standardized tests given to fourth, eighth and 11th graders.

— Kathy Hennessy
Report highlights special-ed disparity
Philadelphia Inquirer


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