Special Education

Schools’ Racial Makeup Can Sway Disability Diagnoses

By Christina A. Samuels — June 11, 2019 6 min read
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Are black and Hispanic students identified for special education too often, or not often enough?

For several years, that question has been the focus of a simmering policy debate. Federal regulations require districts to guard against greatly overidentifying minority students with disabilities—also known as “significant disproportionality” in the regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Nationally, 14 percent of white students ages 3-21 are in special education; for black students it is 16 percent and for Hispanic students, 13 percent.

In recent years, however, other research has shown that black and Hispanic students are actually less likely to be placed in special education than white peers who have similar academic and behavioral backgrounds. That could potentially leave them at risk of not getting the help they may need to succeed.

But a handful of new studies, all published in May, suggest that identifying a child with a disability is linked to a complex set of factors. They include the racial makeup of the school that child attends, the resources available to that school, and even the perception of certain disabilities being more desirable than others.

States that want to get to the bottom of how they are identifying students with disabilities need to do a much more complex analysis of their student data than they’ve been asked to do so far, researchers say.

“I’ve fallen away from arguing for proportionality,” said the author of one of those recent studies, Dara Shifrer, an assistant professor of sociology at Portland State University. “There is no objective marker that we want to hit.”

Rather, Shifrer said, “what we’re really advocating for is, is let’s change the way we talk about this. Let’s just be really honest that these diagnoses are scientifically limited, so that it doesn’t affect kids’ lives.”

The new studies, all conducted separately, are based on analyzing thousands of student records in different states and districts.

In one study, for example, researchers examined the birth and educational records of some 869,000 children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002, controlling for a wealth of health and economic factors, such as birth weight, complications during delivery, the educational level of the mother, and language spoken at home. That means they could compare children who were similar in all factors except for their race or ethnicity.

They found that overall, black and Hispanic students are identified for special education at lower rates than white students who are otherwise similar to them.

But where those students attended school seemed to play a large role in their disability diagnosis. Black and Hispanic students were more likely to be identified with disabilities when they attended schools that had a mostly white population. But black and Hispanic students were substantially underidentified with disabilities, compared to white students, when they attended schools where the student body was mostly black or Hispanic.

That trend was particularly evident for black children. For example, the researchers found that a black 4th grader who attended a school that was more than 90 percent minority was 9 percentage points less likely to be identified for special education than a similar black student in a school that was mostly white.

Increased Diagnoses

For black students, the difference was linked primarily to increased diagnoses of specific learning disabilities; for Hispanic kids, the difference was linked to diagnoses of speech and language impairments.

The study tried to see if identification rates were low at high-minority schools due to those schools being relatively poor or underresourced. That doesn’t appear to explain the entire disparity, said Scott Imberman, professor of economics and education at Michigan State University and a study co-author.

“If we are going to use [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] to deal with disproportionality, do we want to be accounting for certain aspects of students’ background when we do that?” Imberman said. He believes the answer is yes, though right now, states are not required to make those kinds of calculations. And though this study looked only at Florida, it’s likely that there are similar complexities and complications in other states, he said.

“It may not work the exact same way [in other states], but it’s hard to believe that the complexity is not there,” he said.

The study, “School Segregation and Racial Gaps in Special Education Identification” was published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Studies published on NBER are circulated for discussion and comment, but have not been peer reviewed.

A second study, by Shifrer and co-author Rachel E. Fish, an assistant professor of special education at New York University, looked at the records of nearly 400,000 students enrolled over five years in a large, unnamed school district in the Southwest. These researchers were looking for factors that might make students more likely than similar peers to be identified for special education. The researchers controlled for factors such as age, gender, race, and scores on standardized tests.

School Context Matters

As with the study of students in Florida, the data showed that students who were black were more likely to be diagnosed with a disability if they attended a mostly white school. The same was true of students who were English learners.

But there were other factors that led to students ending up in special education more often, regardless of their race. Students who attended schools with more resources—for example, magnet schools, schools with high teacher-to-student ratios, or schools with a wealthier student body—were identified with disabilities more often than similar students in schools without those factors.

Shifrer said the findings suggest that different rates of identification say less about actual differences among children, and more about the different contexts in which these students are educated.

The study, “A Multilevel Investigation into Contextual Reliability in the Designation of Cognitive Health Conditions among U.S. Children,” was published in the journal Society and Mental Health.

Fish also wrote a solo paper looking at special education enrollment in Wisconsin. As with the other studies, she had thousands of student records to draw from; in this case, more than 400,000.

In Fish’s Wisconsin study, however, she looked more closely at the disability categories that students ended up in. She considered “higher status” disabilities to be autism, speech and language impairment, or “other health impairment,” a category often used for children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Those disabilities are linked with higher inclusion rates and less stigma, Fish said. Lower status disabilities in her paper were intellectual disability and emotional/behavioral disabilities.

In Wisconsin she found that, overall, black and Hispanic students were identified with disabilities at lower rates than similar white peers when taking into account factors such as poverty and test scores—an echo of other research findings.

But the school level analysis revealed additional nuances. White students were more likely to be diagnosed with disabilities when they attended schools with more black, Hispanic, and other non-white students. And they were also more likely to end up in the “higher status” disability categories, as defined by Fish. In contrast, black, Hispanic and Native American students were more likely to be diagnosed with a “lower status” disability if they attended a mostly white school.

“We think about these diagnoses as showing something really distinct and essential about a kid,” Fish said. But these findings and others show that is not always the case.

“The lines between what is a disability and what is not is fuzzy, and they are dependent in part on our social context,” she said. Asking states and districts to do additional analyses of student data is a heavy lift, Fish acknowledged, but one that could be done with university partners.

“We need to know what’s feeding into these referrals,” she said.

Standing Out and Sorting In: Exploring the Role of Racial Composition in Racial Disparities in Special Education” was published in the American Educational Research Journal.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as Segregation Sways Disability Diagnoses


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