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The Disproportionate Representation of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Special Education

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. What is disproportionality?

A. In general, disproportionate representation, or disproportionality, refers to the over- or under-representation of a given population group, often defined by racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also defined by socioeconomic status, national origin, English proficiency, gender, and sexual orientation, in a specific population category. A child's race and ethnicity significantly influence the child's probability of being misidentified, misclassified, and inappropriately placed in special education programs. Research shows the relationship between race and ethnicity and other variables for students' placement in special education classes. Variables such as language, poverty, assessment practices, systemic issues, and professional development opportunities for teachers have been cited as factors that play a role in disproportionate representation.

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Q. What is the role of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in disproportionality?

A. OSEP administers the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 requires states to collect and analyze data to "determine if significant disproportionality based on race is occurring in the state or schools" and to revise "policies, procedures, and practices used in the identification and placement" if it is determined that significant disproportionality does indeed exist. OSEP reports on the presence of disproportionate representation of minorities in special education, by both ethnic group and specific disability, in its Annual Report to Congress. OSEP also funds various projects (through grants to organizations and institutions of higher education) such as EMSTAC, to create technical assistance providers to help districts rectify disproportionate representation.

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Q. Why should parents, educators, and community members be concerned about disproportionality?

A. For ethnic minority students, misclassification or inappropriate placement in special education programs can have devastating consequences. The problem is exacerbated when it results in a child's removal from the regular education setting, the core curriculum, or both. Students faced with such exclusionary practices are more likely to encounter a limited curriculum and lower teacher expectations. As a result, these students often have more negative post-school outcomes as evidenced by their lack of participation in post-secondary education and limited employment opportunities. In some districts, the disproportionate representation of ethnic minority students in special education classes also results in significant racial separation. This situation raises concerns that unlawful racial segregation may be occurring, in violation of Title VI.

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Q. How is disproportionality monitored in school districts?

A. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) undertakes pro-active compliance reviews of disproportionate representation. This office gathers information on the racial breakdown of general and special education enrollments in districts and states. If disparities occur in these data, OCR conducts statistical analysis using either the chi-square, fisher-exact, or Z-test to determine whether the data disparities have statistical significance. Even if statistical significance is found, the district may not be in violation of the law. Instead, in citing a district, OCR is alerting that district that it has a disproportionate representation of minority students in special education. In all cases, cited districts must voluntarily agree to work to remedy this disproportionate representation. OCR works with these districts to create an action plan that details exactly what approaches the district will take and a time schedule to report back to OCR.

Some districts and state education offices take it upon themselves to determine whether they have an overrepresentation of minorities in their special education programs. These offices typically follow methods similar to those used by OCR. Some offices seek technical assistance from organizations such as EMSTAC to find ways to remedy issues pertaining to disproportionate representation.

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Q. Does disproportionality refer only to ethnicity in special education or specific disability categories?

A. Districts can be disproportionate in many ways. The most frequently discussed and addressed form at this time is disproportionality as it relates to students' ethnicity. Other variables, such as gender and SES, also may be disproportionate and must be monitored. IDEA requires districts to collect child find data to stay abreast of any trends toward disproportionate representation.

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Q. What is the most effective strategy for reducing disproportionality for ethnic minority students?

A. Disproportionality is a multi-faceted problem. A district should base its strategy on the unique situation of that district. For example, some districts' problems stem from disproportionate placement of ESL students, whereas other districts' problems may deal with disproportionate representation of African American males in special education. Although there are some commonalties for dealing with these issues, the approaches that are used to address the underlying problems associated with each will surely differ. Research has shown that reducing disproportionality requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses teacher training, culturally appropriate assessment and instruction, cultural sensitivity, home and school collaboration, and an effective pre-referral process. Each district must work through a problem-solving process that includes, but is not limited to, analyzing of the problem, identifying of existing resources, allocating and using resources, and correcting current practices.

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Q. What disability categories have an overrepresentation of ethnically and racially diverse students?

A. According to the 22nd Annual Report to Congress, African-American students are over-represented in 9 of 13 disability categories--specific learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, and developmental delay. In particular, African-American students represent more than twice the national population estimates in mental retardation and developmental delay categories. American Indian students also exceed the national average in 9 disability categories--specific learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, visual impairments, deaf-blindness, and traumatic brain injury, with deaf-blindness and traumatic brain injury reaching the largest percentages. Meanwhile, Hispanic students exceed population estimates in 3 categories (specific learning disabilities, hearing impairments, and orthopedic impairments), and Asian/Pacific Islander students are also disproportionately represented in 3 categories (hearing impairments, autism, and deaf-blindness).


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