Skip to Content

Minorities in special education

Attention: open in a new window. PDFPrintE-mail


Special Education: it's a minority thing

It is a 40-year-old problem – one that's attracted researchers and legislators alike.

In America's public schools, minority students are over-represented in special education programs and have been since the program's creation, according to a 2008 report in the Exceptional Children Journal.

Matthew Ladner, vice president
of research for the Goldwater
Courtesy Matthew Ladner

In Arizona's public schools, the situation isn't any different. Hispanic students attending affluent, predominantly white schools are much more likely to be placed in special education than their white peers, according to the 2004 report by Matthew Ladner, vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute.

In fact, Hispanic males are labeled with disabilities at a 64 percent higher rate in schools where the white population is 75 percent or more, than in schools where the white population is 25 percent or less, the report said.

Enrolling students in special education when they don't truly belong there is an attempt to substitute the program for remedial education, Ladner said. In the end, educators “are not doing the kids any favors,” he added.

“It is not OK to label a kid that doesn't have a disability with one. It can permanently change what the kid expects from himself, and what the teacher expects,” Ladner said.

His words are echoed in a 2007 report from the National Education Association (NEA) that states, “Mislabeling students creates a false impression of the child's intelligence and academic potential.”

The report further backs that statement with the following reasons; compiled from four different sets of research:
• Once students receive special education services, they tend to remain in special education classes.
• Students are likely to encounter a limited, less rigorous curriculum.
• Lower expectations can lead to diminished academic and post-secondary opportunities.
• Students in special education programs can have less access to academically-able peers.
• Disabled students are often stigmatized socially.
• Disproportionality can contribute to significant racial separation.

Although minority over-representation in special education continues, it hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Act, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Effective since July 2005, the act requires states to collect and examine data from all school districts to monitor the over or under representation of minority groups in special education. If a disproportionate representation is found, the district's special education placement policies are subject to revamping and 15 percent of its special education funds will be directed toward remedial education services for the over-identified group, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The language barrier

While there's an ongoing debate about how to achieve equal representation, “the thing that everyone ought to agree to is that we need a correct diagnosis,” Ladner said. “If for no other reason – and there are plenty of other reasons – it's taking resources away from kids that do have disabilities.”

Tara Stevenson, a special education social studies teacher at Flowing
Wells Junior High, assists two students.
Photo by Michelli Murphy

When the students in question are English language learners, the correct diagnosis becomes harder to assess said Tara Stevenson, a special education social studies teacher at Flowing Wells Junior High.

“I do think that there are kids that with tutoring, we would actually be able to see that they're not special ed., they're just behind,” Stevenson said. “There is a difference between being behind and being a special ed student – but how do you really test that? And especially with students who have language barriers?”

“(School Psychologists) do have to give them the test in Spanish, but if you've never gone to school, or not gone consistently, these tests that say your skills should be here – you're not meeting that. Maybe there is something developmentally wrong. But, it's hard to tell whether it's developmental or environmental in some cases,” she said.

The outdated special education placement tests do not help the situation, said Pete Wells, principal at Flowing Wells Junior High.

“The placement is based on tests from the ‘70s and ‘80s. That's a lifetime ago,” Wells said.

While there are probably some kids in special education that shouldn't be, he said, Hispanic over-representation hasn't been an issue at the schools he has worked for.

Before becoming the principal at Flowing Wells Junior High, Wells was the principal of Walter Douglas Elementary School.

Both schools have predominantly minority student populations, of which the largest group is Hispanic, and about half of the special education students are black or white, he said.

This observation is consistent with the NEA report that states English language learners are only over-represented in those schools with a small English language learner population.

About 16 percent of kids in those schools receive special education services, versus the 9 percent of kids who receive services in schools with 100 English language learners or more, according to the NEA report.

Since Hispanic students and English language learners overlap significantly, it is hard to evaluate the groups separately, according to the report.

The fight for progress

While the statistics are clear, the reasons for the over-representation aren't.

Before the enactment of No Child Left Behind, there was incentive to place low-performing students in special education since their standardized tests scores didn't count toward the school's overall performance.

But that is no longer the case. In schools where there are at least 40 special education students, their test scores are included with the rest, causing schools to be labeled failing when they would otherwise meet the federal government's yearly progress assessment, Wells said.

Tara Stevenson, special education teacher at Flowing
Wells Junior High, answers students' questions.
Photo by Michelli Murphy

Flowing Wells Junior High is a perfect example; of the 906 students enrolled, more than 100 receive special education services, Stevenson said. The test scores of those students are the reason Flowing Wells has failed to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” – the label given to schools meeting No Child Left behind standards, Wells said.

“It feels like we've been thrown under the train and it's going over us,” Wells said.

The school has taken steps to raise test scores by targeting the lowest math and reading performers and providing separate tutoring with teacher aides, he said.

Since January, nearly all the targeted kids have improved their reading abilities by one to two grade levels, Stevenson said.

“We have seen gains,” Wells said, “I just don't know if it's sustainable.”

Overall, the state is lacking the policy needed to address the issue in a substantive way, Ladner said. But he looks to the Vail School District as a shining example of what can be done to ensure that students are properly placed into special education programs.

In 2002, Vail schools implemented a universal screening technique that tests all students early to determine who is behind. Those falling behind receive remedial instruction and, “lo and behold, special education rates go way down,” Ladner said.

“The minority special education rate dropped by 50 percent and the rate of other students dropped by 30 percent,” he said.

For now, Vail is the only school district implementing this, Ladner said. Persuading others to follow suit may take some time, he said.

“School districts are not the most innovative things,” he said. “It can be a lot like trying to turn around an ocean liner.”

Written by Michelli Murphy

Stalk us at:

Border Beat on Facebook

Border Beat Blogs

Educación en la Frontera

By: Shannon Maule

A look at higher education in regard to those who have and have not been able to travel from various countries to the United States. Stories from people in the higher education world relating to the border.

A Mosaic America

By: Rachel Kolinski

"Exploring Diversity one Face at a Time"

Dancing in the Desert

By: Hope Jamieson

Explore dance throughout the borderlands.

A City of Musical Diversity

By: Maria Teracena

Tucson musicians influence and are influenced by the sounds of the world.

Culture Crossing

By: Chelsey Barthel

American borders are crossed every day by cultures of all kind. These stories tell the personal experiences of people from different lands, offering further insight into the difference of cultures.


By: Lauren Inouye

A look at Mexican and Latin films that reflect culture, politics, and society --  reviews, research and analysis.


By: Charles Misra

Stories about martial arts and combat sports with a cultural twist, all finding a home in America's southwestern borderlands.

Border People

By: Jamie Turow

Profiles of English language learners.

Tear Down Borders

By: Jessica Hoerth

Meet some of the people in Tucson who have made the journey across the border as they share what they came in search of and what struggles they may have encountered along the way.

Border Couture

By: Lauren Urratio

Fashion and how it is impacted by the border and international cultures.

Crossing the Line

By: Lucy Valencia

News from along the border with Mexico

The Border Project

By: Melissa Guz

"The Border Project" is an art showcase located in the University of Arizona's Museum of Art. It has over 40+ art pieces related to border issues.

Athletics and the Border

By: Preston Fawcett

Get to know high school coachs and athletes from Arizona border towns or from Mexico and their struggles to get to where they are.

Border Personalities

By: Audrey A. Fitzsimmons

The Southwest boasts of diverse ethnic backgrounds and a wealth of interesting personalities. Border Personalities is dedicated to the people of the Southwest and their stories.

Border Beats

By: Jeff Kessler

U.S. - Mexico border issues, current events, and interesting local stories

Music of the Border

By: Steven Schiraldi

Music reviews of musical works by Mexican or other ethnic artists.

The Border Wall

By: Brett Haupt

A visual exploration of America’s last frontier -- pictures and videos from different areas of the wall and fence that separate two different worlds and insight into what really stands between the United States and Mexico, ramifications of wall building and what it means for the average citizen.

Border Athletes

By: Lauren Sokol

Meet international student athletes at the University of Arizona, a look at the recruiting process that helped them find a temporary home in the desert, and culture changes that the athletes might have endured.

Journey Across the Border

By: Emily Kjesbo

Spotlighting Mexico’s top travel destinations, as well as a few of its hidden gems.

Border Shots

By: Keith Perfetti

A photojournalist looks at how other photographers have viewed the border and shoots lesser known spots of the southwest.

MLS Soccer comes to the Desert

By: Jeff Kessler

All about the 2012 Desert Diamond Cup,  a 10 day exhibition soccer tournament featuring four Major League Soccor teams coming to Tucson.