5 things to know about racial and ethnic disparities in special education

Research BriefHealthy SchoolsJan 12 2017


Each year, roughly 6 million students with disabilities, ages 6 to 21, receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Although special education is a source of critical services and supports for these students, students of color with disabilities still face a number of obstacles impeding their ability to succeed in school. In 2015, only 3 percent of black and Hispanic 12th -grade students with disabilities achieved proficiency in reading, while practically none achieved proficiency in math.

In late December 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued final rules to prompt states to proactively address racial and ethnic disparities in the identification, placement, and discipline of children with disabilities. That same month, they released comprehensive legal guidance describing schools’ obligations under federal civil rights and disabilities studies not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin in the administration of special education. To help educators, school communities, and education officials understand the challenges prompting these initiatives, here are five critical facts about racial and ethnic disparities in special education:

1There are wide disparities in disability identification by race and ethnicity.

In general, students of color are disproportionately overrepresented among children with disabilities: black students are 40 percent more likely, and American Indian students are 70 percent more likely, to be identified as having disabilities than are their peers. The overrepresentation of particular demographics varies depending on the type of disability, and disparities are particularly prevalent for so-called high-incidence disabilities, including specific learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities. Black students are twice as likely to be identified as having emotional disturbance and intellectual disability as their peers. American Indian students are twice as likely to be identified as having specific learning disabilities, and four times as likely to be identified as having developmental delays. Research does not support the conclusion that race and ethnic disproportionality in special education is due to differences in socioeconomic status between groups. Efforts to reduce disparity, then, should support more widespread screening for developmental delays among young children, and should assist educators in identifying disabilities early and appropriately to address student needs. One study found that 4-year-old black children were also disproportionately underrepresented in early childhood special education and early intervention programs.

2Many children of color with disabilities experience a segregated education system.

While children with disabilities have been placed in more inclusive education settings since the early 1990s, progress toward inclusion has not improved over the last decade, specifically. To ensure greatest access to rigorous academic content, IDEA statute requires that children with disabilities receive their education in the least restrictive environment, alongside children without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. However, in 2014, children of color with disabilities—including 17 percent of black students, and 21 percent of Asian students—were placed in the regular classroom, on average, less than 40 percent of the school day. By comparison, 11 percent of white and American Indian or Alaskan Native children with disabilities were similarly placed.

3In a single year, 1 in 5 black, American Indian, and multiracial boys with disabilities were suspended from school.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013 to 2014 Civil Rights Data Collection, students with disabilities (12 percent) are twice as likely as their peers without disabilities (5 percent) to receive at least one out-of-school suspension. Suspension from school is associated with an increased risk of dropout, grade retention, and contact with the juvenile justice system. To ensure students’ access to a free and appropriate public education, as promised by IDEA, schools should take care to address both academic and behavioral needs in the development of students’ individualized education programs (IEPs).

4IDEA provisions intended to address racial and ethnic disparities are underused.

For example, Section 618(d) of IDEA requires states to identify school districts with significant disproportionality, by race or ethnicity, in the identification, placement, or discipline of children with disabilities. Such school districts must reserve 15 percent of federal funds provided under IDEA, Part B to implement comprehensive, coordinated early intervening services to address the disparity. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, each year, 3 percent or less of all school districts are identified as having significant disproportionality. In 2013, 75 percent of the identified school districts were located in seven states. That same year, 22 states did not identify any districts with significant disproportionality. While there is no consensus definition of significant disproportionality – as the term refers to an IDEA legal standard, to be decided on by states, the U.S. Department of Education published preliminary data identifying extensive racial and ethnic disparities in every state in the union. Under the new final rule from the U.S. Department of Education, all states will be required to follow a standard approach to define and identify significant disproportionality in school districts.

5Greater flexibility to implement comprehensive, coordinated early intervening services (CEIS) may help school districts address special education disparities, and improve academic outcomes for children of color with disabilities.

Historically, school districts with significant disproportionality were prohibited from using comprehensive CEIS to address the needs of preschool children or children with disabilities. Such restrictions would have prevented schools from using comprehensive CEIS for training IEP teams to build better behavioral supports into students’ IEPs, even to address placement or discipline disparities. Such restrictions would also have prevented efforts to identify and serve preschool children in order to prevent future disparities in disability identification. Under the new final rule, school districts may implement comprehensive CEIS in a manner that addresses identified racial and ethnic disparities, which may include activities that support students with disabilities and preschool children.