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Special EducationOveridentification
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Since the late 1960s, there have been serious concerns among policymakers and the public about the overrepresentation of African-American students in special education. The National Research Council published a report in 2002 that shows more than 14% of African-American students are in special education compared with 13% American Indians, 12% whites, 11% Hispanics, and 5% Asian Americans. The disparities are greatest in categories with the greatest stigma: 2.6% of black students are identified as mentally retarded compared with 1.2% white students.

While the primary focus of public concern continues to be on minorities, disproportional representation in special education can also occur based on: income, native language and cultural or other demographic characteristics. More recently, attention has also focused on groups that are underrepresented in special education, such as females.

The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) attempted to address the disproportionate special education enrollment for students in specific racial or ethnic groups. In particular, IDEA mandated new state minority enrollment reporting requirements. If a significantly disproportionate number of minorities are enrolled in special education, then states are to review and revise their policies, procedures and practices for identifying and placing students.

To determine what constitutes a "significantly disproportionate number," states use a variety of methods, including statistical tests and percentage point discrepancy formulas. Statistical tests help determine if variations are due to chance. Percentage point discrepancy formulas help determine if the number of minority students placed in special education is out of proportion to the percentage of the total student population. For example, if African American students make up 12% of the total student population but account for 30% of special education students, this would likely indicate an overidentification problem. For more information on how states use discrepancy formulas, click here.

Where problems are found to exist, states are pursuing several policy options. These include teacher awareness training, examinations of how students are identified for special education, increased and improved monitoring and early identification of kids at risk for reading problems.

This site provides links to information and research on the problem of disproportionately assigning children from a particular demographic group to special education classes. It also examines the activities states are engaged in to improve their processes for identifying children in need of special education.


Donovan, M. Suzanne and Cross, Christopher T., eds. Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education, Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002.

National Center for Learning Disabilities, "Minority Students in Special Education: Disproportionality and Learning Disabilities (LD)."

Joy Markowitz, "State Criteria for Determining Disproportionality," Project Forum, NASDSE, February 2002.


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