As we round the corner to almost two years of school disruption due to COVID-19, we continue to see the growing impact on our school-wide population; staff, students, and communities. The far-reaching consequences have yet to be seen; inequities in access to resources, quality instructional materials, and current technology have been magnified.
It’s no secret that these are challenging times for all educators and our students. Our most vulnerable populations have fallen the furthest behind due to school disruptions (NAEP dashboards - achievement gaps, n.d.). We have an opportunity to make a difference right NOW in all of our students' lives by addressing and resolving disproportionality within our systems, becoming stewards of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.
My co-author and I are both former school leaders and Branching Minds consultants. We support system-wide equity initiatives and tackle challenges related to disproportionality and disparities within our schools. We work hard to help schools support the mantra that ALL truly means ALL students receive support through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). So, let’s begin—grab your data and get ready to bring disproportionality to the light of day. We’ll provide critical examples of leveraging your MTSS problem-solving to address disproportionality and create equity.
Disproportionality within your schoolwide data exists when membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific ability category (NASP). Legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) 2015 have defined disproportionality and increased the necessity for schools to create responsive systems to ensure student learning.
Our perseverance to improve our instruction and intervention systems has allowed our students to experience improved normed and standardized test scores. Graduation rates continue to rise, drop-out rates are decreasing, and we watch more and more students enter college than ever before. But, a spotlight is cast on the lack of representation of students from vulnerable and historically disinvested communities experiencing these successes.A Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is a comprehensive systematic problem-solving approach for providing early and targeted support to students in academic and non-academic areas at increasing intensity or tiers of instruction. Through MTSS we can utilize data-based decision-making to ensure we are providing equitable access and opportunities to all students.
In other words, how do we identify disproportionate data? With more data at our fingertips than ever before, it can be confusing to delve into the treasure trove of data within MTSS. So we’ve narrowed it down to the most critical disproportional look-fors or red flags.
Historically, students from specific racial, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic groups have higher representation in special education programs. MTSS and Special Education are not synonymous and have, unfortunately, been loosely conflated over time. Because of this misconception, we must monitor that our MTSS practice is not becoming a pathway to special education; rather a proactive and responsive system to students’ needs.
To identify overrepresentation in special education within your MTSS processes, be sure to calculate the number of students referred to special education regularly, monitor their tier movement, and response to instruction and intervention. During your school-level MTSS meetings, you can carefully observe how often students who receive tiered intervention are placed in special education programs. You can complete a deeper dive into the root cause for referral to special education and problem-solve to create or revise support plans.
Disproportionate data isn’t always a result of overrepresentation. Disproportionalities can also be due to the under-representation of student groups having equitable access to supplemental resources such as tiered support. This may occur due to scheduling, grouping, or setting lower expectations for specific student groups. By screening your student needs and identifying students that indicate a need for a support plan based on universal screener data regularly, you can ensure that all students receive targeted or intensive support as the needs arise.
Ensure you ask yourself and your teams, “Where and how do we provide equitable support access for all students?” It’s essential to assess the students’ progress after receiving Tier 2 interventions and assess any patterns that may need to be addressed through Tier 1 or Tier 2 instruction and intervention changes.
➡️ Related resource: How to Create an Equitable Tier 1 in MTSS Through Accelerated Core Instruction
Within MTSS, our goal is to ensure that 100% of our students are provided with Tier 1 quality core instruction, understanding that about 15-20% of our students will need additional support to master their benchmark; this is known as the 80-15-5 triangle. Previously, Dr. Essie Sutton, Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds, described tiering patterns that you should assess. According to Dr. Sutton, here are the best places to start when digging for disproportionality in your data:
IDEA provides a calculation to monitor disproportionality within schools and districts (Office of Special Education Programs, 2017). Let’s take a look at a simple example of calculating disproportionality.
Establish the specific group you want to monitor. In this case, we ask: Are Black or African American students more likely to receive a logged behavior incident than other populations?
There are 30 Black or African American Students who have a logged behavior incident in a school system out of a total of 100 Black or African American students in the school system.
30 / 100 = 0.3
This represents the likelihood that a Black or African American student will receive a logged behavior incident.
Establish how often all other groups receive a logged behavior incident to create your comparison group.
There are 100 non-Black or African American Students who have a logged behavior incident in a school system out of 1000 non-Black or African American students in the school system.
100 / 1000 = 0.1
This represents the likelihood that a non-Black or African American student will receive a logged behavior incident.
In this particular school system, Black or African American students are 3.0 times more likely to receive a logged behavior incident than all other student groups.
0.3 / 0.1 = 3
This compares the relative risk of an event among one group with the risk among all other groups within the school system.
**This calculation is derived from IDEA Part B methodology considering disproportionality in special education identification and has been furthered in Indicators 4a. And 4b.; disproportionality and over-representation of out-of-school suspensions for Students with Disabilities.
Disproportionate data is a red flag, a warning indicator, that our practices or system is not supporting all of our students. When we uncover this red flag, dig deeper to identify the root cause and ensure we make adjustments to our practice.
Identifying disproportionate data is an excellent start in ensuring your MTSS practice is equitably serving your students. So what do we do when we identify disproportionate data? Our goal is to identify the root cause and take action. With the students at the center of our decision-making, we must ensure a complete support system that wraps around our students. We’ve organized the best practices for addressing disproportionate data into three essential categories in making long-term changes to your MTSS.
Be thoughtful that your structural set-up promotes equitable access; for example, refrain from identifying wings or floors for specific student groups to integrate and encourage high achievement across campus.
Ultimately, disproportionalities impact our schoolwide equity goals to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes ensuring that all students are provided the academic and social tools to reach their potential regardless of social or cultural factors. As leaders, we are gatekeepers to ensure that our most vulnerable students have documented evidence-based interventions and supports, combined with access to high-quality, culturally relevant instructional materials and practices.
We can support ALL of our students, through MTSS, by using our data to create a solid infrastructure of support redesigned for equity. Our true challenge is identifying disproportionality and providing deliberate support to our students to ensure sustained growth and acceleration.
Disproportionality in Education. National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2022, from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/diversity-and-social-justice/disproportionality
Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) | U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2022, from https://www.ed.gov/essa?src=rn
McCart, A., & Miller, D. (2020). Leading equity-based Mtss for all students. Corwin.
Methodology studies - achievement gaps: NAEP. Methodology Studies - Achievement Gaps | NAEP. (n.d.). Retrieved December 31, 2021, from https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/studies/gaps/
NAEP dashboards - achievement gaps. The Nation's Report Card. (n.d.). Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/dashboards/achievement_gaps.aspx
Office of Special Education Programs | Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services | U.S. Department of Education. (2017, March). Idea part B regulations significant disproportionality. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/significant-disproportionality-qa-03-08-17-2.pdf
Simon, C. (2021, July 19). How Covid taught America about inequity in Education. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved January 29, 2022, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/07/how-covid-taught-america-about-inequity-in-education/
Smith, D., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2021). Removing Labels, Grades K-12: 40 Techniques to Disrupt Negative Expectations About Students and Schools. Sage Publications.
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