Disproportionality of specific racial and ethnic groups in special education


Adapted from the: Center for Parent Information and Resources (7.21.2020). Module 5: DIsproportionality and Overrepresentation, Newark, NJ, Author. (2011)

Disproportionality in the context of the IDEA refers to comparisons made among groups of students by race or ethnicity who are identified for special education services. Where students from particular racial or ethnic groups are identified either at a greater or lesser rate than all other students then that group may be said to be disproportionately represented in special education.

  • In some cases, the percentage of an ethnic or racial group may be less than what is found in the population in general. In this case, the group may be described as underrepresented.
  • Conversely, when a particular ethnic or racial group is represented in special education at a greater rate than the population in general, that group is said to be overrepresented.

Why Addressing Disproportionality is Critical

The importance of addressing disproportionate representation is evident in that Congress has twice commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue—in 1982 and again in 2002. The recent 2002 report concluded, “[T]wenty years later, disproportion in special education persists” (Donovan & Cross, 2002, p. 1). The phenomenon of disproportionate representation is particularly troubling when one considers that minority children are comprising an increasing percentage of public-school students.

Congress contends that:

  • Greater efforts are needed to prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling minority children with disabilities.
  • 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.
  • African-American children are identified as having intellectual disability and emotional disturbance at rates greater than their White counterparts.
  • In the 1998-1999 school year, African-American children represented 14.8% of the population aged 6 through 21, yet comprised 20.2% of all children with disabilities served in our schools.
  • Studies have found that in schools with predominately White students and teachers, disproportionately high numbers of minority students have been placed in special education. [20 U.S.C. 1400(c)(12)]

IDEA 2004’s Emphasis on Disproportionality

As the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt, 2005) summarizes, IDEA 2004 has made numerous changes in how States and Local Education Agency (LEAs) must now address disproportionality in special education. Changes in Part B regulations[1]  include a more extensive scan for instances of disproportionality, more extensive remedies where findings of disproportionality occur, and a focus on the development of personnel preparation models to ensure appropriate placement and services for all students and to reduce disproportionality in eligibility, placement, and disciplinary actions.

 1 Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities, Final Rule, 71 Fed. Reg. 46540 (August 14, 2006) (to be codified at 34 C.F.R. pt.300).

While IDEA ’97 mandated that States analyze their special education student count data for disproportionality, the requirements under that law were limited to identification and placement data. As a result, States could look at their LEA data to see if there were disproportionate numbers of students from particular ethnic or linguistic groups in particular special education placements. For instance, a State might find that, in a particular local educational agency, students who were African American were more likely to be identified for emotional disturbance and placed in self-contained day programs. However, States were not asked to analyze disproportionality in suspension and expulsion rates, and other disciplinary actions. New provisions in IDEA 2004 and its regulations require this analysis.

IDEA requires that where a determination of significant disproportionality is found, the SEA shall provide for review and, if appropriate, revision of policies, procedures and practices used in identification and placement to ensure compliance with the requirements of IDEA. New provisions of the law additionally stipulate that, when States identify significant disproportionality, they must require LEAs to reserve the maximum amount of funds under section 613(f) to provide comprehensive, coordinated, early intervening services to students in the LEA, particularly students in groups that are significantly overidentified, and to report publicly on the revision of policies, procedures and practices used in identification and placement.

Disproportionality is not solely a special education issue

The professional literature distinguishes between judgmental or high-incidence and nonjudgmental, or low-incidence disability categories. Nonjudgmental categories relate to children who are deaf and blind or have orthopedic impairments or severe intellectual disability. In contrast, diagnosis for categories such as mild intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, or specific learning disabilities (SLD) rests on the “art” of professional judgment (O’Connor & DeLuca Fernandez, 2006). Often children “who are referred to the judgmental categories… rarely come to school with a disability determination. They are referred to special education only after they have failed to achieve in the general education classroom” (Donovan & Cross, 2002, p. 209). It is for this reason that we need to pay greater attention to the general educational context where the problem of disproportionate representation originates. The problem of disproportionality can no longer be viewed solely as a special education issue.

Excerpts from 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.

Impact of Disproportionality

black boyAfrican-American youth placed in special education programs experience fewer positive outcomes than their White counterparts. They:

  • Are more likely to be assigned to segregated classrooms or placements;
  • Have limited access to inclusive and general education environments;
  • Experience in higher dropout rates and lower academic performance;
  • Are exposed to substandard and less rigorous curricula (Ferri & Connor, 2005);
  • May be misclassified or inappropriately labeled;
  • May receive services that do not meet their needs; and
  • Are less likely than their White counterparts to return to general education classrooms. (Council for Exceptional Children, 2002)

The Civil Rights Project (2002) at Harvard University states that disproportionately patterns are similar for Latino students:

Once identified, most minority students are significantly more likely to be removed from the general education program and be educated in a more restrictive environment. For instance, African American and Latino students are about twice as likely as White students to be educated in a restrictive, substantially separate educational setting.

The implications?

Given that students with special needs benefit most when they are educated in the least restrictive environment to the maximum extent appropriate, the data on educational settings raise serious questions about the quality of special education provided to Hispanic, African-American, and other minority students compared to Whites. (Civil Rights Project, 2002)

Looking for Answers

Disproportionality is a complex phenomenon, and research suggests that there are multiple factors that contribute to this problem. Two of the most common hypotheses regarding overrepresentation are:

  • Racial or ethnic groups are differentially susceptible to disability, and
  • Overrepresentation is the result of special education, referral, assessment, and eligibility processes. Instruments used in those processes are culturally and linguistically biased—and, as a result, measure and interpret the ability, achievement, and behavior of students differently across ethnic groups (Oswald, Coutinho, & Best, 2000).

Other causal factors identified by the professional literature and appearing on the slide are:

  • Failure of the general education system to educate children from diverse backgrounds
  • Misidentification and the misuse of tests
  • Lack of access to effective instruction in general education programs
  • Insufficient resources and less well-trained teachers, making learning more difficult
  • Poverty.

With respect to the latter theory—that poverty can explain overrepresentation in intellectutal disability or emotional disturbance —the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University writes that the theory is contradicted by national trends revealed by the data: For example, poverty theory fails to explain: (a) why gross racial disparities are only found in intellectual disability (ID) and emotional disturbance (ED), and not in the category of specific learning disability or any medically diagnosed disabilities; or (b) why Hispanics have a far lower identification rate for ID and ED than both African Americans and Whites, despite the fact that African Americans and Hispanics share a far greater risk than Whites for poverty, exposure to environmental toxins, and low academic achievement. (Civil Rights Project, 2002).

While these factors are extremely important in shaping the discussion on disproportionality, it is not the intent of this reading to focus on the numerous theories that exist to explain the causes of disproportionality. The professional literature is infused in these background materials solely to help contextualize the discussion. Let’s focus on the provisions of IDEA—and see how IDEA 2004 addresses disproportionality.

The State must have in effect, consistent with the purposes of this part and with section 618(d) of the Act, policies and procedures designed to prevent the inappropriate overidentification or disproportionate representation by race and ethnicity of children as children with disabilities, including children with disabilities with a particular impairment described in §300.8.

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.

Zeroing in on Specific Disability Categories

States are required to provide racial/ethnic disproportionality data for children ages 6 through 21 served under IDEA, at a minimum, for children in the following six disability categories:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Specific learning disabilities,
  • Emotional disturbance,
  • Speech or language impairments,
  • Other health impairments, and
  • Autism.

However, if a State has previously identified a problem, or if a State has reason to believe that there are issues with other disability categories (i.e., through written complaints, due process filings, etc.), then the State should explore the remaining disability categories as necessary.

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 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.

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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