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The Untested

Is the Richmond school system disabling pupils to skirt state testing requirements?

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Is it something in the water?
More than a quarter of Richmond's school-age black males — roughly 28 percent, or around 3,000 pupils— are classified as cognitively or emotionally disabled, according to 2008 Richmond Public Schools data reported to the Virginia Department of Education. Statewide, the average is about 23 percent for the same group.

Both in the city and statewide, fewer than 20 percent of white males are similarly classified. This high reported disability rate among black males also stands in stark contrast to statistics reported for black females. School officials classified girls as disabled at a sharply lower rate, both in the city and in the state. About 14 percent of black females enrolled in Richmond schools are disabled, compared with roughly 10 percent statewide.

“There's either something in the water — or it's our school system,” says John Butcher, a local attorney who's worked with former Richmond School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf in a broad examination of city schools data.

The water, however, just might be spiked: Over-classifying black males as disabled is a subject that's drawn the attention of academics and researchers for years. Some of them say urban school systems such as Richmond's are eager to classify underachieving pupils as disabled to skirt accreditation and Standards of Learning test requirements. School systems can apply for waivers that allow disabled children to submit to alternative tests.

When compared with the broader population — all pupils of all races — the Richmond school system is an overachiever. Nearly 20 percent of all children in Richmond schools were classified as disabled in 2007, compared with statewide statistics of less than 14 percent. Richmond also leads when compared with other urban school districts with primarily black pupils. Hampton, Norfolk and Newport News report disabilities among all pupils that are within a percentage point of the state average.

“Over-identification of minorities into special education is the shame of our city our state and our nation,” Wolf says. “It's time that we fix it.”

Butcher and Wolf say that classifying pupils as disabled has figured prominently into the school system's strategy to meet state school accreditation requirements. The disabled pupils who take the SOL alternative tests are allowed to count toward the school system's accreditation requirements.

During the past two years, Richmond school officials requested to exceed a cap on the number of pupils whose alternative tests counted toward that accreditation. The requests were denied in both instances.

District officials deny that the district has ever relied on special education over-classification in an effort to improve its performance on state accreditation testing.

But the numbers speak for themselves, says Wolf, who believes such a disproportionate percentage of black males being removed from general education settings and labeled as mentally inferior has a lifelong effect on their ability to succeed in society.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott has railed for years against what he calls the “cradle to prison pipeline” — institutional processes within education and social services that by design lead to higher rates of incarceration among blacks. By misclassifying children as disabled, he says, the school system essentially gives up on them — many of whom are the most at risk.

“If you have behavioral problems, often the response to behavioral problems is to label someone disabled,” says Scott, who sees restructuring of public education within the social-services continuum as the best route to a solution. “The fact that there is a disproportionate identification [of black males] is a cumulative result of a failure to prioritize your investments so they can do the most good.”

Meanwhile, state education officials do not recognize any racial over-identification in special education.

In both the 2008 and 2009 special education performance reports for Richmond, the Virginia Department of Education indicates the district does not have a “disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups in special education ... that is the result of inappropriate identification.” That report, which similarly found no disproportionate special education classification at any Virginia district, relied on assessments done by the individual localities.

City schools officials stand by that assessment.

“We're not considered to be disproportionate,” says Harley Tomey, the district's director of exceptional education, suggesting Richmond's demographics explain why city pupils are statistically more likely to be classified disabled than any other locality in the state.

Tomey also points to foster and group homes: “Statistically … there are a large percentage of those kids who probably have disabilities. That sometimes affects our numbers as well.”

As the district prepared for this year's SOL testing, Richmond Superintendent of Schools Yvonne Brandon's letter to the state seeking an exemption to the state cap on testing waivers cites the school district's anomalously high numbers of disabled pupils as reason for her waiver request.

At the same time the letter also notes a 57.3 percent drop in the number of pupils taking the alternative test, credited by Brandon to the district's better adherence to state guidelines in determining a child's disability.

Her letter includes statistics showing that between 2006 and 2009, the number of children in Richmond classified by the district as mentally retarded dropped from 379 to 124.

Tomey also says the school district is doing a better job adhering to the state guidelines.

“I can tell you that since I've been here, the percentage of students with mental retardation … has dropped significantly,” he says. Tomey said he's unsure whether re-evaluation of children previously identified as mentally retarded had led to the discovery of misidentified pupils, but acknowledged that it was possible if not likely.

Meanwhile, Butcher suggests that for more than half of the district's mentally retarded pupils to simply disappear from the rolls within such a short span suggests big problems: “What does that tell you about the number of over-classified [disabled] kids when they started this process?”

Wolf sees a sinister aspect to the district's willingness to label pupils, allegedly with the purpose of boosting district-wide test scores.

“Do you really believe that a quarter of black males in Richmond have a disability?” Wolf asks. “This is the whole argument that black males are inferior genetically — we know that's not true.” S

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