Why are certain populations over-represented in special education?

One important issue that involves assessment is the high numbers of minority students who are identified for special education services. It is estimated that about twelve percent of the current student population experiences some type of disability. One would expect that the incidence of students who have disabilities would be equally distributed among different student populations. Whenever a disproportionate number of students are identified from specific populations of students as having disabilities, this group is "over-represented." This issue has been of great concern for many years and touches on many elements of educational practice, from the referral process for special education, to the instructional strategies used by teachers, to our beliefs about poverty, race and culture.

Factual Information

As a teacher, it is important to continually examine your own understandings and beliefs about the influence of race, class and culture on decisions about whether a child needs special education services. For example, how do you know when a child's behavior is a serious problem or just a cultural difference in the way the child's family and community typically behave? Perhaps you have discussed this issue in classes, or even read materials about these issues. The Education Policy Analysis Archives website hosts an article on Assumptions about the Nature of Disproportionate Representation that provides an overview of the complex issues teachers should think about when considering the needs of the diverse students the classroom.

Data from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) annual reports to Congress on the implementation of IDEA show that over-representation of minority students in special education is a problem that affects educational equity in our country. Equity is affected because misidentifying students might cause their educational experiences to become unnecessarily limited or might cause educators to limit their expectations for these children. Misidentification also means that special education resources intended to be used for students who have actual disabilities are misdirected.

While students' difficulties with learning can be caused by students' disabilities, there are many other reasons why students might experience difficulties in school. These reasons include the general school curriculum not sufficiently addressing the needs of children from diverse backgrounds, stressful home situations, an inadequate general curriculum, poor prior instruction, or language differences. As a teacher, it is important to consider whether the difficulties a child may be experiencing in your classroom are the result of a learning disability or if the difficulties may stem from other causes such as the child's lack of prior learning experiences.

One major reason for the current focus on Response to Intervention (RTI) is to think differently about the processes used to identify and place students in special education. Through processes such as RTI, a prevention approach is used and ample time is given to support students who may need more intensive instruction and/or interventions before consideration for placement in special education.

Classroom Activities

  • Carefully monitor and document the difficulties that a student is experiencing over a long period. Check with colleagues from your district's special education department to see if your district prescribes specific forms for documentation and a specific length of time for which the difficulties should be monitored.
  • Document any accommodations you have made for a child about whom you have concerns. Also document the student's responses to the accommodations you have made.
  • As you monitor and document the difficulties the student has with instruction, consider the many and varied possible reasons for the student's difficulties.


  • Talk with your school administrators and colleagues from the special education department to determine if a problem of overrepresentation exists in your school.
  • Work with other educators in your school and district to ensure that a quality pre-referral intervention process is designed and implemented. A quality pre-referral process provides general educators with the supports necessary to ensure that students' needs are met in the general classroom, if at all possible.

Resources and Links