Disproportionality of specific racial and ethnic groups in special education


Table of Contents

  • Why Addressing Disproportionality is Critical
  • IDEA 2004’s Emphasis on Disproportionality
  • The Impact of Disproportionality
  • Zeroing in one Specific Disability Categories
  • Watch the video
  • Voices from the Field

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.

voices from the field

Voices from the field

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

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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