Education Dive: Study: School socioeconomics affect special education placement
Author: Linda Jacobson
Posted: May 31, 2019

To read the original story, visit Education Dive.

Dive Brief:

A student identified with a disability in one school won’t necessarily have that label in another school, according to a new study published in the journal Society and Mental Health that adds to the discussion on the overrepresentation of students of color in special education programs.

Focusing on a sample of almost 379,000 students in a large urban district, co-authors Dara Shifrer, an assistant sociology professor at Portland State University in Oregon, and Rachel Fish, an assistant professor of special education at New York University, find the demographics of a school, the overall achievement levels of its students and teacher-student ratios can affect whether a student is identified for special education. "Kids may have the same test scores and same social background, but the school they attend determines whether they'll get a disability classification," Shifrer said in a statement.

A low-achieving student in a high-performing school, for example, is more likely to be labeled with a disability than if he or she attended a low-performing school. Black children and English learners are also more likely to be referred for special education if they attend schools with lower percentages of students in those subgroups.

Dive Insight:

The study also finds that students who attend schools with more resources — such as smaller class sizes and wealthier parents — are also more likely to be identified for special education. The researchers suggest that higher-income parents may be more likely to advocate for their children to receive services, and that teachers with fewer students might have more time to initiate the process of referring a child for special education.

The paper builds on Shifrer’s earlier work showing that special education classifications occur “inconsistently or subjectively” and often have more to do with socioeconomic status than actual biological or neurological factors. The findings, Shirfer said in an email, are also a response to the controversial position of some researchers that minority students are underrepresented in special education because educators don't want their referral recommendations to appear racist. This interpretation "implies the low achievement of racial minorities represents actual disabilities," Shifrer said. "Rather than recognizing achievement disparities as a social problem, it reinforces ideas that racial minorities are more likely to be neurologically deficient than white people."

The authors of the new study recommend “checks and balances” be incorporated into the process of assigning a student an individual education program. In order to achieve a more “balanced perspective,” one strategy would be for schools to include educators from multiple schools within a district — instead of all from the same school — in making classification decisions. 

“Disability labels shape the courses students are placed into, sometimes segregating them from learning opportunities and mainstream peers,” Shifrer said in an email. “Disability labels shape how teachers and parents perceive the child, as well as how the child perceives themselves. The ramifications of disability labels reverberate throughout adult life.”