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Study: Black students less likely to be identified as having disabilities

Students of color, particularly black children, are disproportionately underclassified by schools as having disabilities.
Back view of a black student attending a class at computer lab.
Black and Latino students in the South are less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities when compared to their White peers, according to a study that will be published in a forthcoming issue of Exceptional Children.skynesher / Getty Images

Black and Latino students in the South are less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities when compared to their White peers, according to a study that will be published in a forthcoming issue of Exceptional Children.

The most stark results included the number of Black students who were classified as having a learning disability. Black students who were in 8th grade in 2003 were 71 percent less likely to be identified for learning disabilities than their white peers, whereas black students who were in the 8th grade in 2015 were 55 percent less likely to be classified with a learning disability.

Though previous research already showed that students of color are not as frequently recognized for special education services, those studies did not account for possible geographical differences. As a result, some have questioned the accuracy of assuming all students of color — regardless of their location — are underidentified for disabilities, according to Paul Morgan, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of “Are Schools in the U.S. South Using Special Education to Segregate Students by Race?”

“Because prior research did not look at specific regions, the pervading belief was that students of color were overidentified as having disabilities as a result of bias and other external circumstances, such as school resources,” Morgan told NBC News. “This study shows that we’re still seeing this bias and the external circumstances take hold, they’re just operating in the opposite direction.”

“I view it as a civil rights issue,” Morgan added. “We want a system that results in treatment and services and as of now, there is a lack of appropriate identification.”

Morgan specifically wanted to examine the South in this study as others have hypothesized that overidentification might be more likely to happen in the region because of its legacy of slavery, secession, resistance to abolition after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and school segregation.

“Other work has suggested that following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the South turned to alternative ways to maintain racial segregation, but it didn’t examine students who look similar or account for other explanatory factors,” Morgan said.

In conducting this research, Morgan and his co-authors analyzed data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a data collection project administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The surveys used focused on fourth and eighth graders in 2003 and 2015 from 11 Southern states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Caroline, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — all of which seceded from the Union to join the Confederate States of America.

The NAEP data accounted for students’ disability status, race or ethnicity and mathematical achievement, the latter of which has been traditionally used as a statistical control for underidentification of disabilities in national research. It did not include students of Asian or Native American descent due to a limited sample pool.

Through cross analyses, researchers discovered that there was no evidence to suggest that Black or Latino students were on average more likely to be identified as having disabilities than similarly situated White students attending the same schools. Instead, Morgan observed that students of color were less likely to be identified as having a disability.

Students of color can be underidentified for a variety of reasons, including fewer interactions with health professionals, limited access to information about disability conditions in their communities, and poorly resourced schools “where only students with very low levels of school functioning are evaluated,” according to the study.

While the study did not evaluate the effectiveness of the special education services provided to students in the South, Morgan said this research demonstrates the need to restructure federal policy so that students of color with disabilities are more likely to be identified.

He added that providing special education services for children with disabilities can be “costly” for schools and difficult for parents and students to secure — a problem that must be addressed on a national scale.

“This can lead families who are well-resourced to acquire the help their child needs, while others cannot,” Morgan said. “We should be worried about that; it’s a public health issue.”