The analysis on the page would ideally be informed by the actual underlying figures from the 2002 study referenced below. I sought those numbers from the principal author by email of December 28, 2012, but did not receive a response.
One basis for assertions that racial bias is a source of racial disparities in public school discipline rates is based on a perception about the types of offenses for which black and white students are disciplined. That assertion appears to be based on a failure to understand the way that relative differences tend to be affected by the prevalence of an outcome.
The American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Study that is the subject of the APA Zero Tolerance Study subpage of DD presented the referenced assertion in the following terms:
“Skiba et al. (2002) [[i]] described racial disparities in school punishments in an urban
setting, and tested alternate hypotheses for that disproportionality. Discriminant function analyses by race revealed differences on only 8 of the 32 possible reasons for referral to the office; yet the group receiving the higher rate of school punishment did not show a pattern of more disruptive behavior. White students were referred to the office significantly more than Black students for offenses that can be more easily documented objectively: smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and obscene language. In contrast, African American students were referred for discipline more than White students for disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering, behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent. In summary, there is no evidence that racial disparities in school discipline can be accounted for by higher rates of African American disruption. Rather, where racial disparities exist, African American students may be subjected to office referrals or disciplinary consequences for less serious or more subjective reasons.”[ii]
To the extent that the statement “the group receiving the higher rate of school discipline did not show a pattern of more disruptive behavior” is intended to mean the more disciplined group (blacks) were less often disruptive than whites, the statement has no foundation in the data examined and is almost certainly incorrect. An interpretive problem lies in the distinction between (a) rates at which the two student populations were referred to the office for various reasons and (b) the reasons for which students referred to the office were referred. Almost certainly, members of the black student population were referred to the office at higher rates than members of the white student population for both (a) easily-documented objectively identified (typically more serious)[iii] offenses and (b) more subjectively identified (typically less serious) offenses. But, among students who were referred to the office, the proportion of referred white students comprised by those who were referred for the easily-documented offenses was larger than the proportion of referred black student comprised by those who were referred for such offenses; correspondingly, the proportion of referred black students comprised by those who were referred for subjective offenses was larger than the proportion of referred white students comprised by those who were referred for subjective offenses.
As explained in “Illusions of Job Segregation,” in order to determine whether members of either group who commit either type of offense are referred to the office more often than the other, one must have data on the populations who commit each type of offense. The patterns described in the Skiba 2002 article would be consistent with various situations where higher proportions of whites who committed each type of offense are referred than of blacks who committed each type of offense.
Further, the patterns described in the 2002 article simply reflect the type of pattern one would expect where the relative differences between the rates at which members of the student body were referred to the office was larger for subjective offenses than for well-document offenses. And there is reason to expect such pattern simply because students are likely to be referred to the office in a higher proportion of cases of the easily documented conduct than of the subjectively identified conduct.
The point can be illustrated with data from the Table 1 of the 2006 British Society for Population Studies (BSPS) paper. The two rows of data in Table 1 below are based on Rows K and L of the BSPS paper. Both rows involve a situation where mean differences in conduct differ by half a standard deviation and where the adverse outcome involves falling beyond a certain point as to the level of the conduct. As to the more serious type of conduct, all offenders falling beyond point K in terms of level of the conduct (a point benchmarked by an advantaged group adverse outcome rate of 20%) are referred to the office. As to the less serious type of conduct, only those offenders falling beyond point L in terms of the seriousness of the conduct (a point benchmarked by an advantaged group adverse outcome rate of 10%) are disciplined. Thus, we see larger relative differences for the latter than the former. We also observe that among persons in the advantaged and disadvantaged groups experiencing the adverse outcome, the proportion comprised by persons who engaged in the more serious conduct is larger for the advantaged group than the disadvantaged group while the proportion comprised by persons who engaged in the less serious conduct is larger for the disadvantaged group than the advantaged group.[iv]
Table 1. Illustration of Consequence of Differing Referral Thresholds for Different Types of Conduct, Where Distributions of Advantaged Group (AG) and Disadvantaged Group (DG) Differ by Half a Standard Deviation as to Both the More Serious and Less Serious Conduct [ref b4325 a 4]
K - Easily documented/more serious
L - Subjectively identified/less serious
Another way of conceptualizing the matter, and one that would bring it closer the testing situation that underlies BSPS Table 1, would involve referral to remedial education programs for reading and for handwriting. Let us assume that the two groups’ performance differ by half a standard deviation as to both reading and handwriting and that determinations as to reading deficiencies are more objective than determinations as to handwriting. Suppose, then, that a school determined that because of the importance of reading, anyone falling below point K would be sent to a remedial program. But because of the lesser importance of handwriting, only those falling below point L would be sent to a remedial program. The situation would then lend itself to a fair characterization that among persons sent to remedial programs whites were more likely to be sent for poor reading skills (something that could be objectively documented), while blacks were more likely to be sent for poor handwriting skills (something that involves a comparatively subjective determination.)
But it is a situation where, using the manner of characterization employed in the APA Zero Tolerance Report and the 2002 Skiba study on which it relied, one could say that whites were more likely than blacks to be referred to remedial programs for things that could be documented objectively like poor reading sills, while blacks were more likely to be referred for things that were subjectively identified like poor handwriting skills. Employing that manner of characterization, one might also say that blacks were not more likely than whites to require remedial reading courses. But that obviously is not the case.
A similar way of conceptualizing the matter would involve situations where blacks and whites differ by half a standard deviation both on their math scores and on their creative writing scores but where a larger proportion of students is deemed to have failed math (where failure tends to be determined in a fairly objective manner) than is deemed to have failed creative writing (where failure tends to determined in a fairly subjective manner). In such situation the relative differences for failing creative writing would be larger than the relative difference for failing math, and correspondingly, a larger proportion of white students than black students who failed would have failed math, while a larger proportion of black students than white students who failed would have failed creative writing. But examined from the perspective of the Zero Tolerance Report and the 2002 Skiba study, one might say that whites tend to be failed on a subject that could be identified objectively while blacks tend to be failed on a subject that tended to be identified subjectively.
[i]Skiba, R.J., Michael, R.S., Nardo, A.C. & Peterson, R. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. Urban Review, 34, 317-342.
[iii] The quoted material describes the subjectively identified conduct as less serious. I am not sure whether that is necessarily correct given the infractions identified as more easily documented (which include smoking). But I accept the characterization for purposes of the illustration made here. Further, a key point made infra is that it will require a more extreme form of one type of conduct than another to elicit a sanction such as being referred to the office. And that would seem to hold both for types differentiated by more serious versus less serious and differentiated as easily documented versus subjectively identified (where in each case the latter type of conduct is that for which a smaller proportion of cases is sanctioned).
[iv] The Losen study that is the subject of the NEPC National Study subpage and referenced in note ii supra relies on absolute differences between rates to measure disparities. That leads to many conclusions that are the opposite of those one would reach based on relative differences in adverse outcomes. At page 7 the study relies on Skiba to the effect that “racial disparities in discipline are larger in the offense categories that are subjective or vague, and vice versa.” As discussed in the NEPC National Subpage, however, the Losen study measured disparities in terms of absolute differences between rates. According to the analysis of this subpage, absolute differences between rates would be smaller for subjective of vague offense categories. But one would need the underlying data to be certain about that.