School & District Management

Minorities Less Likely to Be Identified for Special Education, Study Finds

By Christina A. Samuels — June 24, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Black students and Hispanic students are less likely than their white and non-Hispanic peers to be labeled as having a disability, when factors such as household income, low birthweight and parents’ marital status are taken into account, according to a study released Wednesday.

Those findings challenge the notion that overt or unconscious bias on the part of educators has funneled a disproportionate number of minority students into special education. According to the researchers, it is not race, but risk factors such as poverty, that are driving some children into special education.

Researchers looked at five of the 13 disability categories under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, “other health impairment” (a category that often includes students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), specific learning disability, and speech and language impairment. White students were more likely than otherwise similar minority students to be identified with a disability in each of those categories.

The five categories represent about 84 percent of the students ages 6 to 21 with disabilities that are covered under the IDEA. They also represent categories for which human judgment often plays a role in diagnosis—unlike, for example, deafness, blindness, or orthopedic impairments.

“We’re not seeing the evidence of an active racial bias leading to those children being inappropriately placed into special education,” said Paul L. Morgan, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and the study’s lead author. In fact, “minority children are less likely to receive treatment for a disability they may have,” he said. The study Minorities Are Disproportionately Underrepresented in Special Education: Longitudinal Evidence Across Five Disability Categories, was published online June 24 by the journal Educational Researcher, a publication of the American Educational Research Association.

The idea that minority students are placed in special education out of proportion to their percentage in the population has been taken as an article of faith—the federal government, for example, is exploring ways to get states to use more of their federal special education dollars to prevent overidentification.

Morgan and AERA created a video explaining the findings:

So why the disconnect between policy and the actual risk numbers? In the study, the researchers looked at a national sample of children, but included not only race but a number of other variables that are connected to educational outcomes: English-language status, birth weight, insurance status, household income, and mother’s marital status, among others. They also controlled for the child’s academic achievement and behavior.

When the children were compared after accounting for those confounding factors, the probability for being identified for special education was always lower for minority students. Morgan explained that race may not be playing a role in special education identification, but that there are many negative factors for children that are associated with race. For example, black children may be more likely to be born at a low birth weight, or to be in low-income households. Morgan said that educators may also be avoiding identifying minorities for special education because they are concerned about tipping towards overidentification.

The children in the national sample were followed from kindergarten through 8th grade, and the pattern did not vary: white students were more likely to be identified as being in those disability categories. Just looking at the percentage of black children identified with a disability compared to their population in the school body is not enough, Morgan said: it’s those risk factors that appear to make a real difference.

(A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute had similar results: When controlling for a variety of confounding factors, the kindergarten-readiness gap between young white and minority students shrank significantly. Also, other health research has found that minority children are less likely to be diagnosed with disabilities such as autism.)

The findings suggest that policymakers need to find out if there are any barriers that are preventing children from getting access to the services that could help them, the researchers said.I For example, pediatricians and school psychologists may be more likely to ask white, English-speaking parents if they have concerns about their child’s well-being.

“There’s plenty of evidence that special education can make improvements in children’s academic and behavior functioning,” Morgan said. “And the consequences of an untreated disability are really clear.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.