Racial and language minority students in elementary and middle school are less likely than their White, English-speaking peers to be identified as having learning disabilities, according to a new national study.
Consequently, minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in special education. They are also less likely than Whites to receive potentially beneficial special education services.
This theory about underrepresentation differs from most of those in prior research. It also contrasts with federal legislation and policies that have attempted to reduce what has been repeatedly reported to be minority overrepresentation in special education. Currently, the U.S. Department of Education is considering issuing further compliance monitoring guidelines regarding minority overrepresentation.
Dr. Paul L. Morgan calls such a focus “misdirected.”
“These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation’s education inequities,” says Morgan, a Pennsylvania State University associate professor of education and lead author of the national study. “As a matter of social justice, we should work to ensure that all children with disabilities, regardless of race, ethnicity or language use, receive the care they need.”
Researchers from Penn State and the University of California, Irvine, examined demographic characteristics of children across five disability categories: learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbances and other health impairments such as Tourette syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Our study failed to find any evidence that racial, ethnic or language minority children in the United States are being disproportionately overrepresented in special education,” the scholars wrote. “(Our) findings are not consistent with characterizations of special education as racist or discriminatory due to predispositions to label racial, ethnic, or language minority children as disabled in order to segregate them in classrooms separate from their White, English-speaking classmates. Federal legislation and policies that lower cultural and language barriers may be necessary to ensure that all children with disabilities are provided with the special education services for which they are legally entitled.”
Published last week in an American Educational Research Association journal, the study found that the underrepresentation of minorities in special education existed from the time students entered kindergarten until they finished eighth grade.
The findings include:
– African-American children have odds of health impairment identification that’s 77 percent lower than those of otherwise similar White children. For Hispanic children, it’s 73 percent lower.
– African-American youth are 64 percent less likely to be identified as having emotional disturbances than Whites are.
– Hispanics are identified with disabilities more frequently than African-American children but significantly less often than otherwise similar Whites.
– Children from non-English-speaking homes have odds of speech and language impairment identification that are 40 percent lower than otherwise similar children from English-speaking homes.
– 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 Tourette syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and 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,” Morgan says. “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.”
He and his colleagues suggest the use of interpreters and bilingual written materials, for instance, to help better evaluate children for disabilities.
Authors of the study analyzed multiyear, longitudinal and nationally representative data from the Education Department. Among other factors, the analyses controlled for child-, family- and state-level variables, such as a student’s academic achievement and behavior, family socioeconomic status and state of residence.
Morgan notes that some of these factors, such as family access to health insurance—or lack thereof—have rarely been considered in previous studies. He and the other researchers also took into account early childhood biological factors that can put students at risk for impairments affecting cognitive ability and behavior. For example, minority babies are more likely than Whites to have low birth weight—five pounds or less.
“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,” Morgan says. “Yet these studies have often not accounted for minority children’s greater exposure to factors that increase the risk for disabling conditions.”