How disproportionality contributes to the gap in behavioral and academic performance

African American male elementary student sitting at a desk drawing math graphs

Traditionally, when educators discuss disproportionality, they focus on the overrepresentation of minority students within special education. Realistically, if this was the case then the impact of educational practice which results in disproportionality would be limited to a small percentage of students. However, the concept of disproportionality and disparities from expected representation of students in specific programs or student outcomes reflected by specific groups is much more widespread and impactful to be limited to the special education eligibility process. Disproportionality is particularly relevant for minority, economically disadvantaged, and special education student groups in terms of punitive disciplinary actions and poor academic performance.

Expressly, students from these groups are more likely to receive exclusionary disciplinary actions (suspension) and perform less adequately than their peers on assessments of academic skills. A national study (Kim, et al., 2010) found that students with disabilities are suspended twice as often as their cohorts. Losen and Gillespie (2012) found that some minority groups are 3 times as likely to be suspended as their white and Asian American cohorts. Balfanz and Boccanfuso (2007) found that students suspended once in 9th grade had an increased risk of dropping out from 16% to 32%, and those students suspended twice increased to 42%. Arcia (2006) linked low academic performance with high disciplinary action rates.

Research also suggests that exclusionary discipline undermines students’ academic achievement by weakening their connection with school and removing them from the classroom. Student groups who experience multiple suspensions are disproportionately at risk for academic failure, dropping out, and escalating negative behavior and the student groups most at risk are minority students and students in special education (Fabelo et al., 2011). Therefore using traditional methods of discipline (office referrals, suspensions, zero-tolerance) to remove students from the learning and instructional environments has a negative impact their academic progress, without the supposed intended outcome of a reduction in future suspensions and office referrals (APA, 2008).

Disproportionality is not limited to one student group nor is it limited to one educational process or student outcome. this review of educational research examines an article which focuses on the impact of minority disproportionality on student discipline and academic achievement. Exclusionary disciplinary practices are most often used with students that can least afford to miss out on the instructional process. Gregory, Skiba, and Noguera (2010) review the educational research on the connection between the disproportionality of minority students receiving student disciplinary actions and their overrepresentation in the group of students identified as at-risk for academic failure. The authors examine how being removed from classroom instruction for behavioral reasons negatively impacts the academic performance of minority students. They then review the factors which the research suggests contribute to disproportionality in disciplinary actions including both student characteristics as well as school and teacher factors. Within the discipline gap literature, the authors cite a study which found that almost 20% of African American students from a national sample had been suspended from school at least once, while less than 10% of white students(8.8%) and Asian American students (6.4%) reported being suspended from school (KewalRamani et al., 2007).

Gregory and her colleagues then discuss the research they reviewed regarding demographic-based explanations for the disparities between minority and non-minority disciplinary consequences. They found that following characteristics account for some but not all the variability between disciplinary actions applied to different student groups: Economically disadvantaged; deficits in academic skills; and home environment/community. Additionally they examine differential behavior; differential selection; and differential processing.

  • Poverty and neighborhood characteristics – While poverty is a valid predictor of disruptive behavior, the research is less clear on the involvement of poverty in contributing to ethnic disparities in discipline. Existing school discipline research suggests that student SES is limited in its explanatory power of the racial discipline gap because when controlled for in multivariate analysis, the disproportionality in disciplinary outcomes remains.
  • Low achievement – Students who struggle academically often respond by exhibiting disruptive behavior. Educational research has linked early academic difficulties with later aggressive behavior and subsequent disciplinary infractions. However, similar to the impact of economical disadvantages, when statistical studies controlled for differences in student academic performance, the discipline gap between student groups remained.
  • Differential behavior – As a factor for disproportionality in student disciplinary actions, differential behavior is the expectation that students from certain racial or ethnic groups are more predisposed to misbehave than other student groups. Again, the research does not support this supposition. This was found in research using both self-report measures as well as results from discipline data management systems.
  • Differential selection – This hypothesis, when applied in the schools, suggests that minority students are more likely to receive punitive disciplinary consequences than other student groups despite the similarity of infractions. The research supports the idea that differential at the classroom level contributes to the discipline gap. This is especially evident in office referrals for defiance and noncompliance, where race of the student appears to subjectively impact teachers’ actions. Several reasons for differential selection in the classroom have been researched including the impact of racial stereotypes, implicit bias, micro aggression, or the cultural mismatch between students and teacher; however, the results of these inquiries have been inconclusive.
  • Differential processing – Simply put, this hypothesis is based on the adage “let the punishment fit the crime.” In their review of the literature the authors found that minority students are more likely to receive extreme punitive consequences than their cohorts for the same infractions. The findings suggest that the severity of the punishment to these students contribute to their overrepresentation in discipline data.

Based on their examination of the educational research, Gregory and her colleagues imply that efforts addressing disproportionality in discipline face the same challenges educators face in addressing the achievement gap and disproportionality in special education. Specifically, the factors involved are multifaceted and their interactions are dynamic, so interventions need to be systemic, dynamic, and multidimensional. While authors found that little systematic research has been done to examine the interventions being used to address the discipline gap, they shared several strategies from Noguera (2007) that they suggest should be included in efforts to address this gap: training teachers and administrators to increase their understanding of cultural bias; consistently using a range of consequences for disruptive behaviors that match in severity; treating exclusion as a last resort and moving away from Zero Tolerance policies; examining the precursors and situational factors involved in disruptive behaviors; and fostering student engagement.

After examining this article, we advocate using a multiple tiered process to address performance gaps, both behavioral and academic. Since it appears that academic and discipline disparities are interrelated, academic and behavioral supports should be aligned for a complete programmatic method. Implementing a proactive, preventive system of strategies can address any predisposition that minority students might bring to the school environment and while providing teachers and administrators with effective tools which can improve their skills and practices. When necessary, tertiary supports, both academic and behavioral, can be used to develop individualized plans of support that take into consideration any cultural or racial factors.


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About the Author
Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec is an educational researcher, evaluator, and consultant with over 25 years of practical experience in public education. He is currently the Director of Research at Review360 in the Clinical Assessment division of Pearson. Previously, Chris was employed by the Houston Independent School District’s Department of Research and Accountability for 15 years, first as a Research and Evaluation Specialist, and then as the Manager of the Program Evaluation and the Performance Analysis Bureaus. He has produced publications and evaluation reports in the areas of Bilingual Education, Early Childhood Education, classroom and student behavior management, and Special Education.




Main Work Cited

Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The achievement gap and the discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin? Educational Researcher, 39, 59–68.


Works Cited

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008). Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852–862.

Arcia, E. (2006). Achievement and enrollment status of suspended students. Education and Urban Society, 38, 359-369.

Balfanz, R., & Boccanfuso, C. (2007). Falling off the path to graduation: Middle grade indicators in [an unidentified northeastern city].Baltimore: Center for Social Organization of Schools.

Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P. III, and Booth E. A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. New York, NY; College Station, TX: Council of State Governments Justice Center; Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University.

KewelRamani, A., Gilbertson, L., Fox, M., & Provasnik, S. (2007). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic minorities (NCES 2007–039). Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved February 3, 2009, from pubs2007/2007039.pdf

Kim, C. Y., Losen, D. J., & Hewitt, D. T. (2010). The school-to-prison pipeline: Structuring legal reform. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Noguera, P. A. (2007). How listening to students can help schools to improve. Theory Into Practice, 46, 205–211.