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Universal Screening to Reduce SPED Disproportionality: A SSWN Research Brief

Universal Screening to Reduce SPED Disproportionality:  A SSWN Research Brief


School social workers are busy people.

Finding good research takes time.

We want to help.

Starting in February, we will post Research Briefs (RBs) and other articles related to the benefit of collecting and using data in school mental health. This RB was completed by school social workers like you, taking research they’ve found and applying it to their school contexts. This RB and others in the coming months will describe research articles and what the particular study could contribute to your school social work practice, starting as soon as tomorrow. They will cover the kinds of things you see every day in your practice and (hopefully) be written in a way that you can use the information immediately, and in the case of this month’s theme, becoming more data-driven in your SSW practice.

Raines, T. C., Dever, B. V., Kamphaus, R. W., & Roach, A. T. (2012). Universal screening for behavioral and emotional risk: A promising method for reducing disproportionate placement in special education. The Journal of Negro Education, 81(3), 283-296.

What is the article about?

This article was about the use of  Universal Screening as a possible avenue to reduce the disproportionate identification of African American students for special education (SPED), particularly for Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (ED/BD) eligibility.  The article provided insights about which methodologies of Universal Screening produce the most reliable results, and how those insights can be applied in a preventative fashion to create school success for students of color and combat over-identification.

What did they find?

In this narrative review article, the authors summarized research showing that currently African American students are identified for special education services more frequently than peers of other ethnicities.  They described that in many American schools, data that is used to qualify students for special education can often be subjective and fraught with problems, and that when a school initiates services for special education, critical opportunities to intervene in a preventative fashion have often been missed. In response to this, Raines, et. al. posited that Universal Screening could be a positive solution to this dilemma. Universal Screening, when done well, should likely provide information in a proactive fashion in order to support intervention plans and FBAs/BIPs that could delay or even eliminate the need for SPED services.  

Two screening tools (Screening for Behavior Disorder and BASC-BESS) and their respective benefits were discussed, although the authors did acknowledge that there are more screening options to research and choose from. Interestingly, the authors argued that student self-report was identified as the preferred methodology of screening (particularly for students with internalizing problems) as opposed to having reports from multiple raters, as they noted that adolescents tend to be more forthright using paper and pencil measures as compared to interviews.

Why is it important?

This article was incredibly powerful and important for me as a school social worker, and could highlight ways that school professionals could slow the over-identification of minority students for special education services.   The authors show us that sometimes the way we do things in schools, although well-intentioned, can actually be iatrogenic for students of color in our buildings, and lead to outcomes that may deepen disparities.  The authors describe that one way to combat over-identifying students of color is to utilize Universal Screening tools in schools to guide interventions for at-risk students.

What can school social workers do?

School social workers can research and collaborate with their districts about the possibility of utilizing Universal Screening.  As Raines, et. al., put it, “universal Screening refers to a systematic approach to identifying students who are demonstrating behavioral and emotional difficulties or the risk factors for the development of such problems by administering a screening measure to all students in the school.”  There are cost-effective options for screening that nonetheless yield promising data about ways to positively intervene with at-risk students. The authors of this article shared two such screeners, The Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders, and the BASC-BESS.  More can be found through simple internet searches, and we will continue to focus on identifying effective and low-cost screening tools here at SSWN.  

For more of Dr. Raines’ work:

About The Author

Michael Flood

Mr. Michael Flood is a school social worker at Old Orchard Junior High School in Skokie, IL. He is also a student in Loyola Chicago's School Mental Health Advanced Practice Program (SMHAPP), where he is focused on using screening data to help his team better deliver services at Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels.

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