Disproportionality of specific racial and ethnic groups in special education


Table of Contents

  • Overview of Disproportionality
  • Disproportionality in Special Education – introductory slideshow
  • IDEA 2004’s Emphasis on Disproportionality
  • IDEA 2016 Regulations on Disproportionality
  • Action Steps for Educators and School Administrators
  • Watch the video-Study Finds Minority Students Are Underrepresented in Special Education.
  • Voices from the Field 

Overview of Disproportionality

Defining disproportionality. In the context of IDEA, the nation’s special education law, disproportionality refers to findings that students from certain racial and ethnic groups may have a greater (or lesser) likely than students from other groups of:
• being identified as a child with a disability who needs special education and related services;
• being identified as having a particular disability (e.g., autism, intellectual disabilities);
• receiving their special education services in settings that are more separated or restrictive;
• receiving harsher, more exclusionary discipline, including suspension and expulsion.

When specific racial or ethnic groups are more likely (or less likely) than others to have any of these outcomes, it’s cause for concern and deeper investigation. In some cases, the percentage of a racial or ethnic group in special education may be less than what is found in the student minority population in general. In this case, the group may be described as underrepresented in special education. In contrast, when a specific racial or ethnic group is represented in special education at a greater rate than the student minority population in general, that group is said to be overrepresented.

The need to address the disproportionate representation of specific racial or ethnic groups in special education has been evident for several decades. Consider that Congress has twice commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study the issue—in 1982 and again in 2002. When IDEA was reauthorized in 2004, Congress drew express attention to the issue, stating as part of its findings that:

  • Greater efforts were needed to prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling minority children with disabilities.
  • More minority children had been, and were continuing to be, served in special education than would be expected from the percentage of minority students in the general school population.
  • African American children were identified as having intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbance at rates greater than their White counterparts.
  • Studies had found that, in schools with predominately White students and teachers, disproportionately high numbers of minority students were being placed in special education. [20 U.S.C. 1400(c)(12)]

IDEA 2004 made many changes in how States and LEAs were to address disproportionality in special education. Congress was sufficiently concerned about the disproportionate representation of minority children in special education, and how they were categorized and placed, that disproportionality became one of three areas it established as a monitoring priority to the extent that such “representation is the result of inappropriate identification.”

(Kupper, 2020)

lookThe following Slideshow-PDF  is intended primarily for use with general audiences with little prior or in-depth knowledge of disproportionality as a national, state, and local concern.

Excerpts from Congressional Findings in IDEA 2004’s Statute

‘‘(10)(A) The Federal Government must be responsive to the growing needs of an increasingly diverse society.

‘‘(B) America’s ethnic profile is rapidly changing. In 2000, 1 of every 3 persons in the United States was a member of a minority group or was limited English proficient.

‘‘(C) Minority children comprise an increasing percentage of public school students.

‘‘(D) With such changing demographics, recruitment efforts for special education personnel should focus on increasing the participation of minorities in the teaching profession in order to provide appropriate role models with sufficient knowledge to address the special education needs of these students.

‘‘(11)(A) The limited English proficient population is the fastest growing in our Nation, and the growth is occurring in many parts of our Nation.

‘‘(B) Studies have documented apparent discrepancies in the levels of referral and placement of limited English proficient children in special education.

‘‘(C) Such discrepancies pose a special challenge for special education in the referral of, assessment of, and provision of services for, our Nation’s students from non-English language backgrounds.

‘‘(12)(A) Greater efforts are needed to prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling and high dropout rates among minority children with disabilities.

‘‘(B) More minority children continue to be served in special education than would be expected from the percentage of minority students in the general school population.

‘‘(C) African-American children are identified as having intellectual disability and emotional disturbance at rates greater than their White counterparts.

‘‘(D) In the 1998–1999 school year, African-American children represented just 14.8 percent of the population aged 6 through 21, but comprised 20.2 percent of all children with disabilities.

‘‘(E) Studies have found that schools with predominately White students and teachers have placed disproportionately high numbers of their minority students into special education.”

Public Law 108-446
Section 601(c), Findings.

*The research at the end of this chapter challenges some of these findings.

Yet here we are today, more than a decade and a half later, having made little progress in addressing disproportionality. According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), it continues still, in:

  • how minority children are identified as having a disability (and which disability); (special education process)
  • where they are placed to receive special education and related services (e.g., in more restrictive or segregated environments); and (least restrictive environment LRE)
  • how they are disproportionately disciplined by schools for behavior or other infractions.

GAO’s recommendation? That the U.S. Department of Education (ED) “should develop a standard approach for defining significant disproportionality to be used by all states. This approach should allow flexibility to account for state differences and specify when exceptions can be made.”

IDEA 2016 Regulations on Disproportionality

On December 12, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education released final regulations under Part B of IDEA, aimed at promoting equity by targeting widespread disparities in the treatment of students of color with disabilities. These regulations address a number of issues related to significant disproportionality in the identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities based on race or ethnicity. At the same time, the Department also released a new Dear Colleague Letter addressing racial discrimination and a fact sheet on Equity in IDEA

(Kupper, 2020)

Read the PDF (450 kb) of the Dear Colleague Letter on Racial Discrimination

Read the Department’s Fact Sheet: Equity in IDEA

Read the Final Rule on Disproportionality in HTML

Read the PDF (587 kb) of the Final Rule on Disproportionality

This provision makes clear that overidentification and disproportionality are to be actively addressed by States, beginning with, but certainly not limited to, having policies and procedures in place to prevent overidentifying (or disproportionately representing) children by race and ethnicity as “children with disabilities” (always a direct reference to IDEA’s definition of “child with a disability” at §300.8). The provision specifically mentions §300.8, in fact, indicating that part of States’ policies and procedures must address preventing the overidentification or disproportionate representation of children by race and ethnicity in specific disability categories—IDEA phrases this as “children with disabilities with a particular impairment.”

The process of determining if significant disproportionality based on race and ethnicity is occurring in the State or in any LEAs of the State begins with the State having policies and procedures, ensuring that specific data are collected—the numbers and types of children in special education, the disability categories into which they are identified, and the other factors mentioned in IDEA (e.g., placement, disciplinary actions). The State must then scrutinize the data to see if significant disproportionality exists. If significant disproportionality is identified, the State must take specific actions.

Action Steps for Educators and School Administrators

Disproportionality in special education based on race or ethnicity is of obvious concern to anyone who cares about education. We are all stakeholders in what our children learn, how they behave at school and how they are treated there, and what they achieve now and in the future. Yet, far too often, children with disabilities experience different treatment in school and achieve disproportionately lower outcomes. This is especially true for those from racial or ethnic minority groups.

What can educators and school administrators, as stakeholders, do to help address, reduce, and (best case!) eliminate this decades-old problem? Here are suggestions and possible action steps to consider.

1—Become Informed about Disproportionality, in General

2—Learn about Disproportionality in Your State, District, or School

3—Raise Your Own Cultural Awareness and Responsiveness

4—Be Culturally Aware and Responsive When Engaging with Students and Parents

5—Actively Seek Out Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Parents

6—Develop School Staff’s Knowledge of UDL

7—Form District or School Teams to Address Disproportionality

8—Infuse Your School System with Learner-Centered Supports

9—Build Strategic Partnerships

Handout 6: Action Steps for Educators and School Administrators (2 pages) from CPIR training materials

Watch the Video “Study Finds Minority Students Are Underrepresented in Special Education in Special Education: Longitudinal Evidence Across Five Disability Conditions.

Excerpt from the transcript:

In contrast to what’s often been reported in the educational research and has been the orientation towards federal legislation of policy, it has been found that racial and ethic and language minority children are less likely to be identified as disabled and therefore receive special education services than otherwise similar white or English speaking children. However, it was found that children who are black were found to constitute a larger percent of the special education, population as compared to their percent of the school population. This disparity of disproportionality in the direction of overrepresentation, has led to criticisms of special education as racially biased and discriminatory.

The five disability examined were; learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, other health impairments, behavioral disabilities and intellectual disabilities.


[American Educational Research Association}, (2015, Jun. 23). Study Finds Minority Students Are Underrepresented in Special Education.[Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/35uBWiIyGsw

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.

voices from the field

Voices from the field

Discussing key takeaways on the disproportionality of specific racial and ethnic groups in special education and culturally responsive teaching.

“African-American youth placed in special education programs experience fewer positive outcomes than their white counterparts” and the list of the true experiences is something that largely stood out to me (CEC, 2002.) Being misclassified/labeled directly leads to not receiving proper services which can reduce the rate of them returning to general education classrooms. This illustrates a clear issue with the assessment and designation process of special education and a failure to address these issues only harms the students involved. Practicing the CRT method may address some issues in disparities as it involves teachers embracing and celebrating diverse students as well as tailoring instruction based on varying ethnic backgrounds to make the general curriculum more accessible to CLD students but it does not address the issue of misclassification and segregated classrooms.

On a larger scale, students receiving an inadequate education may not only have negative effects on the students but on the community as well. Education is an integral part in the development of a human and that development may directly impact their contributions to their community through the workforce. Education increases the communities ability to carry out tasks more efficiently and secondary education/college facilitates new knowledge and the communities ability to create new economic opportunities (World Economic Forum, 2016.) A lack of quality education not only stunts economic output but also has the potential to increase substandard living conditions within a community. Should a person, not learn basic skills, it creates difficulty attaining a job which means the person needs to seek out support from government programs. Instead of being self-sufficient the person now is reliant on government aid that is partially funded through taxes. The more people receiving government funds are directly correlated to the least amount that are working. I do understand that there are working individuals that also receive government assistance, which is why this is more focused on those who are unemployed. In a larger picture, the more people who are able to be self-sufficient, the more successful the country is as a whole as there is more diversity in knowledge, training, and skills. A link to more information on the positive effects of education can be found here https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5b9b87f340f0b67896977bae/K4D_HDR_The_Contribution_of_Education_to_Economic_Growth_Final.pdf

Jake Muniz


For this week’s topic I looked at an article from the Arizona State Law Journal. I found it quite interesting how the author spoke of disproportionality in regards to whole school districts not just minority groups.  She argued: Special education, despite being a uniform federal mandate, is often implemented drastically differently depending on the school system delivering services, the particular category of disability and the race or ethnicity of students.  Affluent white children who attended well-managed school districts tend to benefit from special education services.  In underfund and over-tasked school districts where most minorities attend school, there an not always the same benefits.  In these schools, special education operates as a dumping ground … African-American and American-Indian boys are the most likely to be removed from the general education classroom, be educated in more restrictive or separate environments, drop out of school and be tracked into lower achieving classes.  (Excerpted from Raj, p. 374)  Jacqueline Godin

Raj, C.  Arizona state Law Journal: The misidentification of children with disabilities: A harm with no foul. 6/1/2016, Pg. 374-377.


This concept is one that I feel as educators, we really overlook. It is part of a trending global issue that often seems bigger than us in the classrooms. Unfortunately, society has fallen into this rut of consistently proving stereotypes correct whether it be in the media, news or within pop culture. That being said, we have an opportunity (as educators) to inspire and bring about change. This reality that every student is not treated fairly or equal within the classroom is one that should absolutely not be tolerated under any circumstance. Whether special ed. or gen. ed., students need to all be given the same chances and supports to be as successful as they can and to reach their true potential.

The following article gives a closer look into disproportionality in regards to the discipline of students of color. I found it to be an interesting read as many educators are seemingly stuck and engrained in their ways so heavily, that the very notion of progressing and bringing about change is practically like speaking another language to them. Anonymous

Gordon, N. (2018). Disproportionality in student discipline: Connecting policy to research. Retrieved 11/25/2020 from https://www.brookings.edu/research/disproportionality-in-student-discipline-connecting-policy-to-research/


The article I found is a great resource, where a special education expert talks about disproportionality in Special Education related to race and income. Laura (the expert) talks about how to dig deeper and figure out if there is disproportionality in states/schools and how to make sense of the information. The article also talks about some possible solutions to this problem. Julia Lewis

Anderson, J. (2020). Harvard EdCast: Racial Differences in Special Education Identification. Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/20/03/harvard-edcast-racial-differences-special-education-identification


Being culturally sensitive as a teacher is not something that was on my radar when I started my degree. As I get deeper into my higher-level classes, it is something that I see a strong need for. I had two adopted black twins in my Sunday school class of 20. There were many learning opportunities where other kids (they were kindergarten) did not want to play with the twins because they looked different or “their skin looked dirty.” It was hard to hear, “I don’t want to play with you because _____.” That’s where my assistant or I would zoom in and work through the situation. They experienced the same thing to a higher degree in their elementary school.  Thankfully, their adoptive parents are on top of helping them through those challenges. Heather Roberson


I feel the entirety of this issue is one that will seemingly forever remain a hot-button topic in education. The issue is the many factors that are involved in this debate. One that should not even be debated is the prejudices that some students face in trying to just learn. In the mentioning of refugee students, Manchester has a high population of refugee students. They naturally receive more support in terms of ELL services, but I have personally seen teachers just naturally assume they are going to be more work because of them being refugees. Backwards thinking like this really just hinders the educational experience that students will receive. As assumptions mean teachers think almost less of their students’ potential, when they should know that their students are capable of greatness with the right support. Anonymous


After doing further research about disproportionality, I came across an article written by the National Center for Learning Disabilities called, Significant Disproportionality in Special Education: Current Trends and Actions for Impact. This article shows statistical data regarding the risk ratios for students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, data regarding students with disabilities receiving out-of-school suspensions by race/ethnicity and gender, teacher diversity vs. student diversity, and introduces steps we can take to reduce disproportionality such as using evidence based practices. I like that this article discusses how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can play a role in all families, but more specifically those facing poverty. This article states “students who experience four or more ACEs have been found to be 32 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning or behavioral challenges” (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2020). Although I recognized that these experiences can greatly impact a child’s development and success in school, I was surprised to see these students are thirty-two times more likely to be diagnosed with a learning or behavioral challenge. In addition to this statistic, this article also analyzed research that was conducted on students in Massachusetts. This study found that “students with disabilities taught in fully inclusive environments were five times more likely to graduate on time, compared to other students with disabilities” (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2020). This further shows how crucial it is for all students to have the opportunity to learn in a fully inclusive environment, regardless of their race or ethnicity as discussed earlier.  Karissa Peltier

National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2020). Significant Disproportionality in Special Education: Current Trends and Actions for Impact. Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://www.ncld.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/2020-NCLD-Disproportionality_Trends-and-Actions-for-Impact_FINAL-1.pdf


I think the issue of disproportionality and the issue of culturally responsive teaching are interconnected. The number of teachers who are white is disproportionate to the student population, and many of these teachers do not have the multicultural knowledge skills, resources, experiences, etc. to be able to relate to their minority students. I believe that this plays a critical role in students being misidentified as behavior problems, in need of special education, low achievers, etc. because students first and foremost need to feel acknowledged, represented, comfortable, heard, and understood, in order to access learning.  Caitlin Dubisz


For my research, I wanted to know more about to reduce disproportionality.  I found an Article written by John L Hosp, PH.D; RTI  and the Disproportionate Representation of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students in Special Education. In this article he mentions the patterns of disproportionality have remained stable at the national level for the past 40 years. Most of the research focuses on the number of students identified, but the research is shifting and looking at specific factors associated with disproportionately. Some of these factors include, restrictiveness, eligibility for multiple services, and the connection between achievement gap and disproportionality.  He believes RTI is a solution to address disproportionality. RTI focuses on the outcomes, the individual, the classroom and the school district and is data driven.  Most research is conducted throughout the state, but some have argued there needs to be a greater focused on the individual. The data has been unclear because data collected is inconsistent across schools and districts, but the author believes RTI can help change the pattern. Disproportionality is a complex issue and a simple solution doesn’t exist.  States have different requirements and plans for disproportionality.  Charlotte Miller


The importance of prior knowledge related to vocabulary and personal experience

 I remember very clearly a question that a student had on a test once that showed drawings of different kites. The question was asking which would fly better, which on the surface seems innocent enough, however, for a student that has never flown or even seen a kite, understanding how they are supposed to work is impossible. They were unable to answer the question with any background knowledge. That was the first time I had seen a student truly not have any understanding of something so seemingly simple. They were frustrated, felt stupid, and quickly shut down. After speaking with the teacher about the incident, I was given permission to show the student videos about kite flying, building kites, and looking at research about how and why kites fly. I then gave the test back to the student and they quickly and easily answered the question. It took a few minutes of our time to find information to share with the student, but we did not give the student an advantage over their classmates in doing so. We leveled the playing field. It is so important that we make sure that our assignments reflect the backgrounds of our students and when it cannot, that we give them the background information that they will need to be able to complete the work to the best of their abilities. Amy Welch


Self-assessment of ones cultural identify

Over the last few years, I have attended various types of professional development that have to do with culturally responsive teaching.  While it seems that it would be second nature to teach culturally responsive, it is not always the case.  The biggest take away from this is that teachers need to understand and acknowledge their own feelings and attitudes about cultural diversity.  Allison Gibson

Extended Learning Resources

Natasha M. Strassfeld, The Future of IDEA: Monitoring Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Special Education and Intentional Discrimination Claims, 67 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 1121 (2017) Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/caselrev/vol67/iss4/14

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[American Educational Research Association], (2015, Jun. 23). Study Finds Minority Students Are Underrepresented in Special Education in Special Education.[Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/35uBWiIyGsw

Download training materials at:

Center for Parent Information and Resources (2020). Module 5: Disproportionality and Overrepresentation, Newark, NJ, Author. (public domain) From https://www.parentcenterhub.org/disproportionality-in-special-education/ 

Disproportionality in Special Education PowerPoint, from the CPIR Training Materials. .

Küpper, L. (Ed.) (2020, Nov). Disproportionality in special education: Trainer’s guide for slideshow 1. Newark, NJ: Center for Parent Information and Resources (public domain) from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/wp-content/uploads/repo_items/legacy/dispro-trainerguide1-2020.pdf

Updated 6.22.22