By: Dr. Edward Fergus

Disproportionality within special education is not a recent trend. In fact, it was first identified and acknowledged in special education literature in 19681 and has increased in acknowledgement in the decades since. A report from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 found that Black students were twice as likely to be identified with emotional disabilities and 2.7 times more likely to be identified as cognitively impaired than their white peers nationally. Similarly, Native American students were nearly twice as likely to be identified with specific learning disabilities and 60% more likely to be identified as cognitively impaired than their white peers.2

When a subgroup’s numbers in special education are disproportionately higher than they should be, for as long as they have been, it is critical to get to the root cause of the disproportionality. Let’s examine three ways to help mitigate and even start reversing the cycle of disproportionality within special education.

  1. Review Data

The first step toward a solution is identifying the scope of the issue, the impacted demographics, and the potential root causes. And there is no shortage of data with regard to disproportionality in special education. In Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity: A Leader’s Guide to Using Data to Change Hearts and Minds, I cite ample research and data that illustrate the problem of disproportionality within special education – and offer solutions. Let’s look at a specific case study involving a school district with more than 8,000 students.

When reviewing percentages of students from various racial/ethnic groups who were referred for intervention services, the data revealed significantly higher referral rates for non-white students – well above the 1.85% district average.

Of those referred for intervention, all Black students were referred for special education when, upon review, other types of intervention may have been more appropriate.

Now, let’s consider a 2008-2009 analysis of a different school district with an enrollment of over 10,000 students. The analysis reviewed the classification of students with disabilities (SWD) within each racial/ethnic group. In 2008-09, the breakdown looked like this:

*Total district SWD: 15%

This disproportionality is represented as a 3.98 relative risk ratio of Black students being classified as with a disability compared to all students in the district – meaning that Black students were nearly four times as likely to be classified with a disability (and subsequently, placed into special education) than their peers.

While this is just a mere sampling of the data that exists on disproportionality in special education, the findings are clear — minority racial and ethnic groups are more likely to be classified as either cognitively impaired or learning disabled than their peers – and may be incorrectly placed within a special education program when a less-consequential solution is more appropriate.

  1. Consider Potential Solutions to Misidentification in Special Education

So, what is the solution to potential misidentification of minority students into special education? Being moved into a separate learning environment can have a long-lasting impact on a child; in special education classrooms, academic outcomes are generally worse, expectations for success are lower, and the stigma associated with special education is higher.3

Rather than simply identifying and labeling a child as a “Student with a disability” based on surface observation, deeper assessments should be performed to determine whether a child actually fits the criteria of a student requiring special education. For example, imagine a student who is typically quiet in class. When this student does occasionally speak, the words are jumbled and hard to understand. The disproportionate approach to this issue would be to quickly assume that this child should be placed in special education because every speech impediment is a “disability”—an example of deficit-thinking bias. However, if the right evaluations were performed on the child, it might be revealed that this student is brilliant, with no evidence of a learning or emotional disability. Perhaps this child is bilingual and speaks with an accent, thus making the child feel hesitant to contribute to class – and supports for English Learners might be a more appropriate response.

Some efforts have been made in the past to address disproportionality, but these responses are generally tied to regulations that resulted from reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). For example, a 1997 reauthorization featured requirements for states to define and monitor local education agencies (LEAs) for significant disproportionality in special education identification, placement, and discipline by students’ race/ethnicity.4

Regulations can only take districts so far in addressing disproportionality when practical solutions are needed. Bias-based beliefs – principles that presume a bias orientation towards race, poverty, ethnicity, or language – may need to be addressed In the long term, it’s important for educators to address any bias-based beliefs that make the school culture conducive to disproportionality within special education. Since bias-based beliefs typically aren’t removed overnight, educators can start reviewing and adjusting their overarching protocols for assessment and special education placement. This involves:

  • Individualized decisions for intervention and placement
  • Equal treatment of all students regarding all special education decisions, including screening and pre-referral intervention, evaluation and eligibility determination, and formulation and implementation of individualized educational programs (IEPs)5
  • Professional learning for leaders and teachers on distinguishing disability from contextual factors that could contribute to a student’s academic or behavioral challenges6

Recognizing inequities in special education assessments and placements is just the first step toward addressing disproportionality. The next – and arguably most important – steps are identifying the root cause(s) of the inequity and taking immediate action to correct the mis-designations that lead to disproportionality.

  1. Practice the Pause

As noted above, there are short-term solutions to help initiate the longer-term process of eliminating bias-based beliefs and the disproportionality that typically results. To truly understand significant disproportionality in a district’s special education program, a root cause analysis is necessary. In the meantime, however, educators can act right away to avoid (or correct) misidentification issues that can cause disproportionality. The simplest of actions is a pause.

When educators pause to ask the right questions and commit to understanding the background and experiences of each child, deficit-thinking bias is mitigated, thus enabling educators to formulate an appropriate path that leads to positive student outcomes. In our example of the student who rarely spoke in school, perhaps these questions and evaluations would have identified the need for English Learner supports, and individual or group counseling to help the student overcome hesitancy to communicate when peers are present. We’ve identified three critical pauses that educators can consider:

  • Pausing to inquire about the actual need – instead of moving to the easiest or most expedient option – can help decrease disproportionality rates while allowing all students to achieve success along the most appropriate path.
  • Pausing to evaluate each child’s individual situation and potential need for further questions or assessment is how educators show their investment in the success of all students – regardless of background, behavior, ability, or other factors.
  • Pausing to take a whole child approach toward each student ensures that all factors, barriers, opportunities, and possibilities are brought to bear to design supports to ensure student success.

A Partnership Can Help

Catapult Learning offers flexible professional development solutions designed to help educators address – and mitigate the risk of – significant disproportionality:

  • Workshop bundles like our SEL Plus series address Equity, Cultural Proficiency, Growth-Mindset, learning environment, and more – while other professional development modules focus on Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and intervention strategies.
  • High-impact coaching provides your instructional leadership team with research-based strategies and data analysis right where you are, when you need it.
  • An expert in overcoming significant disproportionality can serve as a special consultant for your school or district. If interested in a session, please contact [email protected]



1Dunn, L. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded: Is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 35, 5–22.

2U.S. Department of Education. (2010). The 29th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2007, vol. 1. Washington, DC: Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education

3Schifter, L. A., Grindal, T., Schwartz, G., & Hehir, T. (2019). Students from low-income families and special education. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from

4Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004). 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Retrieved from

5Sullivan, A.L., Weeks, M.R., Kulkarni, T., & Goerdt, A. (2018). Preventing Disproportionality Through Nondiscriminatory Tiered Services. Midwest & Plains Equity Assistance Center (Great Lakes Equity). Retrieved from

6Lhamon, C. (2016). Dear colleague letter: Preventing racial discrimination in special education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.