For decades, there has been a persistent national trend of public schools disproportionately qualifying more Black students relative to White students for special education under the category of serious emotional disturbance (ED). Such disproportionality suggests but does not prove racial bias in ED evaluations. I experimentally tested how much, if at all, school psychologists’ racial bias impacted eligibility determinations using a vignette methodology and between-group design with three conditions that varied by level of data ambiguity: (a) low-ambiguity data that do not meet ED criteria; (b) low-ambiguity data that meet ED criteria; and (c) highly ambiguous data. The hypothetical student in each vignette was a fifth grade male who had primarily externalizing problems. Participants completed one vignette in each ambiguity condition; student race (Black versus White) was experimentally manipulated. Participants were 60 practicing school psychologists in a northeastern state that adopted the federal regulations for ED eligibility. For each vignette, participants decided whether the student qualified as ED, rated their confidence in their decision and the diagnosticity of data included in the evaluation, and had the option to describe additional data they wish had been included in the results. Chi-square analyses indicated there were no statistically significant differences based on race between students qualified and disqualified as ED across ambiguity conditions, providing some evidence against the racial bias theory of disproportionality. Under the highly ambiguous data condition, there was no statistically significant difference between students qualified as ED and those not qualified – i.e., regardless of race, all students had a coin-toss chance of qualifying as ED. This finding makes sense in light of the numerous ambiguous key terms in the ED criteria, which allow for more than one reasonable interpretation. Results also showed that most school psychologists were at least moderately confident in their determinations across ambiguity conditions. Their confidence in the low-ambiguity conditions makes sense because those vignettes were designed to be relatively easy. Their confidence in the highly ambiguous data condition may illustrate the potency and frequency of confirmation bias in decision making under conditions of high uncertainty. Across ambiguity conditions, participants frequently identified behavior rating scales and infrequently identified achievement and intelligence scores as highly diagnostic. They identified interviews, family information, and observations with varying frequency across conditions, demonstrating that the diagnosticity of data can fluctuate depending on the presenting problems and evaluation results. Finally, school psychologists who opted to describe additional data they wish had been included in the evaluation results primarily requested more information about interventions that had been attempted and consultation with outside mental health providers. Implications for practice and further research opportunities are discussed.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2016. Major: Educational Psychology. Advisor: Amanda Sullivan. 1 computer file (PDF); iv, 79 pages.
School Psychologists’ Decision Making in Evaluations for Emotional Disturbance.
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