What is disproportionality in special education?

Disproportionality is the term used to describe the overrepresentation of a minority group in special education programs.The backdrop to the IEP meetings, consent forms, and evaluations is a law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law sets forth the rights of students with disabilities in the public education system in the United States. We know how to implement that law because of the regulations that come with it. The IDEA regulations tell us information such as how far in advance of a meeting parents must receive notification, and what information the IEP team must consider when drafting an IEP.The IDEA regulations also include metrics for data collection on identification and placement of students within disabilities so the government can keep track of whether certain students, particularly those who are low-income or students of color, are more commonly identified as having a disability, receive their education in a classroom separate, or are disciplined more often than their peers. In short, the regulations call for tracking disproportionality and how to address these issues, such as using interventions in general education to prevent inappropriate identification. 

Where does this information come from?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the body that collects this information. It is a non-partisan agency that works for Congress and delves into research questions upon request to determine how taxpayer dollars are spent.In 2010, the GAO looked into the enforcement of these disproportionality regulations. Their findings, or lack thereof, suggested that states were not tracking data or addressing discrepancies as the law intended. The Obama administration issued new regulations to address the findings in this report. The Trump administration has delayed implementation of those regulations, so they are not yet in effect. 

Why does disproportionality matter to you?

The research is now looking at socio-economic status and its effect on disproportionality. Researchers have found that low-income students are more likely to be identified to receive special education services, and they are more likely to receive their education in a separate classroom as compared to their non-low-income peers. These classrooms tend to have lower expectations for students, and may not set their students up for success. What might have been “diagnosed” as a disability might instead be a reflection of a student’s socioeconomic status. 

What can you do?

As a parent or provider, you are a strong advocate for your child or client. I encourage you to read the full article for more information and background information you can ask your school district personnel next time you have a meeting. Click the button below to read the full report:Students from Low-Income Families and Special Education Source: Schifter, et al.