Study Finds Minority Students Are Underrepresented in Special Education
Finding Conflicts with Current Federal Legislation and Policy

American Educational Research Association (AERA)

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 24, 2015—A new federally funded study finds that racial, ethnic, and language minority elementary- and middle-school students are less likely than otherwise similar white, English-speaking children to be identified as having disabilities and, as a result, are disproportionately underrepresented in special education. These findings differ from most prior education research and contrast with current federal legislation and policies. The study was published online today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Authors Paul L. Morgan of the Pennsylvania State University, George Farkas of University of California, Irvine, and Marianne M. Hillemeier, Richard Mattison, Steve Maczuga, Hui Li, and Michael Cook, all of the Pennsylvania State University, found that racial and ethnic minority children are less likely than otherwise similar white, English-speaking children to be identified as disabled across all five of the surveyed disability conditions—learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, other health impairments, or emotional disturbances—and, so, are less likely to receive potentially beneficial special education services. Language minority children are less likely than otherwise similar children from English-speaking homes to be identified as having learning disabilities or speech or language impairments.

Long-standing and ongoing federal legislation and policymaking has attempted to reduce what has been repeatedly reported to be minority overrepresentation in special education. The U.S. Department of Education is currently considering issuing further compliance monitoring guidelines regarding minority overrepresentation.

“Our findings indicate that federal legislation and policies currently designed to reduce minority over-representation in special education may be misdirected,” said Morgan. “These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation’s education inequities by limiting minority children’s access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled.”

The authors analyzed multiyear longitudinal and nationally representative data from the U.S. Department of Education. The analyses extensively controlled for child-, family-, and state-level variables. These included children’s own academic achievement and behavior, whether they were born with low birth weight, family socioeconomic status and access to health insurance, and their state of residence, among other factors.

“Prior studies have mostly looked at simple, unadjusted comparisons between the general population and the special education population, or differences among minority and non-minority students with controls only at the district or school level,” said Morgan. “Yet these studies have often not accounted for minority children’s greater exposure to factors that increase the risk for disabling conditions. In contrast, our study corrects at the child- and family-levels for minority children’s greater exposure to these risk factors, including the strong predictors of academic achievement or behavior for a school-based disability diagnosis.”

The study’s findings indicated that the underrepresentation of minority children was evident throughout elementary and middle school.

Additional results include:
-African American children have odds of learning disability identification that are 58 percent lower than those of otherwise similar white children. African American children’s odds of identification for speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments, and emotional disturbances are, respectively, 63 percent, 57 percent, 77 percent, and 64 percent lower than otherwise similar white children.
-Hispanic children have odds of learning disability, speech or language impairments, or other health impairments that are, respectively, 29 percent, 33 percent, and 73 percent lower than otherwise similar white children.
-Children from non-English-speaking households have odds of learning disabilities as well as speech or language impairment identification that are, respectively, 28 percent and 40 percent lower than otherwise similar children from English-speaking households.
-Children from families without health insurance are less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments.
-Children from families with lower levels of education and income are less likely to be identified as having other health impairments.
“This underrepresentation may result from teachers, school psychologists, and other education professionals responding differently to white, English-speaking children and their parents,” said Morgan. “Education professionals should be attentive to cultural and language barriers that may keep minority children with disabilities from being appropriately identified and treated.”
“Untreated disabilities increase children’s risk for many adversities, including persistent academic and behavioral difficulties in school,” Morgan said. “As a matter of social justice, we should work to ensure that all children with disabilities, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or language use, receive the care they need.”

Funding Note
Funding for this study was provided by the National Center for Special Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Infrastructure support was provided by Penn State’s Population Research Institute through funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA)is the largest national professional organization devoted to the scientific study of education. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good.



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