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Special Education Students: Alarming Disproportional Representation

The extent of disproportionality or disproportionate representation of special education students across states and school districts varies considerably. For many years the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has monitored efforts to reduce disproportionality. While such monitoring has focused on unusually high rates of identification of minority children in some disability categories, most educators agree that changing practices in order to reduce those numbers will not necessarily improve educational services and outcomes.

Defining Disproportionality  

Disproportionality means that there are more (or fewer) children from a particular group who are experiencing a given situation than we would expect, based on the group’s representation in the general population. Most of the attention to disproportionality still focuses on the over-representation of children of color in some special education disability categories, specifically students with mental retardation and students with emotional and behavioral disorders. However, in recent years, researchers and policymakers have also shown an interest in other forms of disproportionality (e.g., based on gender or socioeconomic class), and in disproportionality with regard to other issues (e.g., placement in gifted and talented programs, placement in particular special education settings, and the occurrence of disciplinary actions; Skiba, et al., 2006).

Why Disproportionality Happens  

The fact that disproportionality is widely viewed as a problem reflects a general belief that the proportion of children who have a disability should be about the same across all race/ethnicity groups. This belief leads to the conclusion that if the proportion for one race/ethnicity group is substantially different from the proportion for another group, then the system for identifying children with disabilities is not working the same way across groups. Further, if identification confers some benefit, or imposes some stigma, then the system is not only working differently, but it is discriminatory.


However, an alternative to this general belief has been proposed: namely, that the proportion of children who are identified as students with disabilities may be higher for a given race/ethnicity group because factors that cause disability are more common in that group. (Skiba, et al., 2005).


Most statements about the causes of disproportionality fall under one of these two positions: (a) disproportionality is the result of a system that works in a biased, discriminatory fashion, or (b) disproportionality is the result of social factors that lead to higher rates of disability in some groups. It is common for scholars to maintain that the disproportionality that exists in the U.S. special education system is the result of some combination of these two factors.

Identification and Assessment Purposes  

The two main purposes of identification and assessment of students with disabilities are to determine whether they are eligible for special education services and, if they are eligible, to determine what those services will be. Eligibility for special education services requires two findings: first, the student must meet the criteria for at least one of the thirteen disabilities recognized in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the counterparts thereof in state law,1,2 and second, special education and/or related services must be required for the student to receive an appropriate education.2,3.

Federal and State Disability Categories  

Thirteen disabilities are briefly defined in the federal IDEA regulations: autism, blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, and other health issues. Problems with the current classification system include stigma to the child, low reliability, poor correlation between categorization and treatment, obsolete assumptions still in use in treatment, and disproportionate representation of minority students. Both African-American and Hispanic students are disproportionately represented in special education but in opposite directions.


Though poverty, cultural bias, and inherent differences have been suggested as reasons for this disproportionate representation, there are no compelling data that fully explain the phenomenon.

In most states, classification of a student as disabled leads to increased funding from the state to the school district.

Why is disproportionality a concern?

Labeling students as disabled when they really are not leads to unwarranted services and supports. Misidentified students are likely to encounter limited access to a rigorous curriculum and diminished expectations. And, more important, mislabeling students creates a false impression of the child’s intelligence and academic potential. Here’s why:

Once students are receiving special education services, they tend to remain in special education classes (Harry & Klingner, 2006).

· Students are likely to encounter a limited, less rigorous curriculum (Harry & Klingner, 2006).

· Lower expectations can lead to diminished academic and post-secondary opportunities (National Research Council, 2002; Harry & Klingner, 2006).

· Students in special education programs can have less access to academically able peers (Donovan & Cross, 2002).

· Disabled students are often stigmatized socially (National Research Council, 2002).

· Disproportionality can contribute to significant racial separation (Harry & Klingner, 2006; Losen & Orfield, 2002).

Call to Action

Educators, administrators, school board members, community decision makers, and NEA’s local association leaders all have a stake in whether children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are appropriately educated. Culturally Linguistically Diverse (CLD) students make up the largest growing group within our public schools today. Looking at the “big picture,” these students are the future of our communities and our democracy. Viewing from a smaller frame, this population is often among the lower-achieving students in a community.


Their academic performance can play a major role in whether a school or district meets requirements of high stakes assessment and accountability programs, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which is the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). At the personal level, all children deserve an appropriate education—one that meets their individual learning needs and prepares them for a successful future. The Truth in their schools and communities about disproportionality leading to a positive difference for all students.


A variety of policies, procedures, and practices exist at the national, state, district, school, or classroom levels that can lead to overrepresentation of CLD populations in special education programs and under-representation in gifted and talented programs. To ensure that all children learn and succeed, educators need to know how they can help to decrease inappropriate special education identification and improve opportunities for CLD children to enhance their gifts and talents.


According to the U.S. Department of Education (2006), approximately 13.5 percent of all students in K–12 schools receive special education services. Some subgroups of children, especially those from CLD populations, receive special education services at rates that are significantly higher or lower than 13.5 percent. Disproportionality exists in various forms and at different levels. For example, overrepresentation can be present in any or all of the following ways:

· national, state, and district level over-identification of CLD students as disabled or under-identification as gifted and/or talented;

· higher incidence rates for certain CLD populations in specific special education categories, such as mental retardation or emotional disturbance;

· significant differences in the proportion of CLD students who are receiving special  education services in more restrictive or segregated programs;

· excessive incidence, duration, and types of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions, experienced by CLD students.

Teacher referral

Teacher referral is a strong predictor of eligibility for special services. In fact, studies show that 73 to 90 percent of the students referred by classroom teachers for special education evaluations due to academic problems are found eligible for services (Harry & Klingner, 2006). Multiple research studies also demonstrate that a child’s race and ethnicity are significantly related to the probability that he or she will be inappropriately identified as disabled (National Research Council, 2002; Losen & Orfield, 2002). If more students are identified as disabled and receiving special education services than their proportional rate within the general population, they are considered to be overrepresented in special education. For instance, look at these findings from disproportionality studies:

· Native American/Alaska Native children are more likely to receive special education services than the general population with a risk ratio of 1.35 percent (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

· Asian/Pacific Islanders are overrepresented in gifted and talented programs (Cartledge, Tam, Loe, Miranda, Lambert, Kea, & Simmons-Reed, 2002).

IDEA 2004 required all states to define how they will measure disproportionality. Currently, states use various methods and no single way to measure disproportionality exists. According to a 2002 report released by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (Markowitz, 2002), however most of the twenty-nine states that had already defined a specific method for measuring disproportionality used a risk ratio comparing the percent of students with disabilities to the percent of students from that ethnic or racial group enrolled in the school or district. Some states also used a tiered scale that establishes increasing levels of risk for CLD being identified as disabled. For example, a 3.0 risk ratio means that a CLD student is three times more likely to be identified as disabled as a White student.

The gender difference  

One additional issue—that not only affects CLD students but all students—is the gender difference evident within special education categories. Across all ethnic and racial groups, twice as many males as females are identified as needing special education services in primary schools, especially in certain categories (Holt, McGrath, & Herring, 2007). Disproportionate representation of male CLD students may be linked in part to this phenomenon. Note these facts from the U.S. Department of Education (2006):

· Nearly 75 percent of students with specific learning disabilities are male.

· Seventy-six percent of students receiving special education services under the category of emotionally disturbed are male.

More than 50 percent of students receiving speech/language therapy services are male

Restrictive environments  

Students with disabilities may be primarily taught in general education classrooms, self-contained special education classes, or specialized schools that are completely separate from regular public schools. Students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams decide what the most appropriate educational environment for each student is. In most instances, children who receive appropriate special education services benefit from the extra support. However, practices that systematically separate CLD children from the general student population can create isolation and unwarranted segregation.

Disciplinary actions  

Racial disproportionality in the application of school disciplinary procedures is an issue that has been well documented for over 30 years (Drakeford, 2004). Evidence persists of disproportionality in school disciplinary practices by race, economic status, gender, and disability category. For example, consider these points:

· CLD students have higher rates of office referrals, suspensions and expulsions from school (Cartledge, et al., 2002).

· Low income Black males receiving special education services have the highest suspension rates of any subgroup (Skiba, et al., 2003).

· Black males are more likely to receive more severe punishment than White students do for the same type of behavior (Cartledge, et al., 2002).


Students with disabilities who were from Black, Hispanic and American Indian backgrounds were 67 percent more likely to be removed from school by a hearing officer on the grounds that they were dangerous during the 1999-2000 school year than their White peers (Osher, Woodruff, & Sims, 2002).


Disproportionality is important because, in some cases, it may signal the presence of bias in the identification of children with disabilities; and inappropriately identifying children as disabled is harmful. Some researchers have suggested that educators have a tendency to label children who “stand out” from the general population; in this case, children who “stand out” because of their race/ethnicity may be identified as EBD even though their behavior is not significantly different from their white peers (Oswald, Coutinho, & Best, 2002). To the extent that such inappropriate identification occurs, educators are compelled on ethical, moral, and now regulatory grounds to actively work to overcome it.


Educators’ experiences over the past decades have demonstrated that disproportionality is not a problem that is easily solved, nor can it be successfully ignored. The issue is politically charged and discussion can quickly become heated and divisive. Nonetheless, experience also suggests that a thoughtful analysis of empirical data, in the context of an explicit conceptual framework, can move the field forward and can help to maintain focus on a universally shared goal: the improvement of educational experiences and outcomes for all children with disabilities.


· Annual Report to Congress on the implementation of the Individual with Disability    Education Act, 2014, from the US Department of Education.

· SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts Data Warehouse (EDW), OMB #1875-0240: “IDEA Part B Child Count and Educational Environments Collection,” 2012. These data are for the 50 states, DC, and BIE schools. U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. “Intercensal Estimates of the Resident Population by Single Year of Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for States and the United States

· Coutinho, Martha J. Donald P. Oswald; & Al M. Best. “Differences in Outcomes for Female and Male Students in Special Education,” Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 29 (2006), 48–59.

· Coutinho, Martha J. Donald P. Oswald; Al M. Best; & Steven R. Forness. “Gender and Socio-demographic Factors and the Disproportionate Identification of Minority Students as Emotionally Disturbed,” Behavior Disorders, 27 (2002),109–25.

· Oswald, Donald P. Al M. Best; & Martha J. Coutinho. “Individual, Family, and School Factors Associated with the Identification of Female and Male Students for Special Education,” International Journal of Special Education, 21 (2006),120–37.

· Oswald,Donald P. Martha J. Coutinho; & Al M. Best. “Community and School Predictors of Overrepresentation of Minority Children in Special Education,” in Racial Inequity in Special Education. Edited by Daniel J. Losen & Gary Orfield. Boston: Harvard Education Press, 2002, pp. 1–14.

· Oswald, Donald P.; Martha J. Coutinho; Al M. Best; & N. N. Singh. “Ethnicity in Special Education and Relationships with School Related Economic and Educational Variables,” Journal of Special Education, 32 (1998), 194–206.

· Skiba, Russell J.; Lori Poloni-Staudinger; Sarah Gallini; Ada B. Simmons; & Renae Feggins-Azziz. “Disparate Access: The Disproportionality of African American Students with Disabilities across Educational Environments,” Exceptional Children, 72 (2006), 411–24.

· Skiba, Russell J. Lori Poloni-Staudinger; Ada B. Simmons; Renae Feggins-Azziz; & Choong-Geun Chung. “Unproven Links: Can Poverty Explain Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education?” The Journal of Special Education, 39 (2005), 130–44

· The Truth in Labeling: Disproportionality in Special and Gifted Education. A collaborative eff ort of the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

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