Study Shows Black Students Less Likely to be Identified as Having Disabilities

A new study to be published in the upcoming issue of Exceptional Children found that Black and Latinx children in the South are less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities. The study differs from findings in previous research by adding analyses of geographical differences.

Paul Morgan, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, is the lead author of “Are Schools in the US South Using Special Education to Segregate Students by Race?” The study looks at the frequency that students of color are recognized for special education services in the South. It’s conclusion challenges the findings of previous research.

“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.

In an interview with The Hechinger Report, Morgan acknowledged that Black students across the country are identified as having learning disabilities at a higher rate than their white peers. He argued that Black children disproportionately come from low-income families without good access to healthcare, which can increase the risks of learning disabilities, thus affecting the national data.

When researchers analyzed and compared data among children of the same family income, academic performance, and other characteristics, they found that students of color are less likely than white students to be identified with disabilities and receive special education services, according to Morgan’s research.

Past research has hypothesized that Black students are overidentified in the South due to its history of enslavement, secession, Jim Crow laws, and school segregation. Morgan said other studies suggest the South used alternative ways to maintain racial segregation following Brown v. Board of Education, “but it didn’t examine students who look similar or account for other explanatory factors.”

Morgan’s newest study came to a slightly different conclusion. “This study shows that we’re still seeing this bias and the external circumstances take hold, they’re just operating in the opposite direction,” Morgan said.

Morgan and his co-authors looked at data collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a project by the National Center for Education Statistics within the US Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. The data Morgan used was focused on fourth and eighth grades in 11 Southern states — Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia — in 2003 and 2015.

The NAEP’s data included students’ disability status, race or ethnicity, and mathematical achievement, NBC News reported. National research often uses mathematical achievement “as a statistical control for underidentification of disabilities.”

According to NBC News, researchers found no evidence that proved Black or Latinx students are more likely to be identified as having disabilities than their white peers. Morgan instead found that students of color are less likely to be classified as having a learning disability.

Black students across the 11 states were “44 percent more likely than white students to receive special education services, compared to 41 percent nationally.” However, when factors such as similar family income, academic achievement, and school characteristics were considered, researchers found that Black students in the South were 45 percent less likely to receive special education services compared to white students in similar life and educational circumstances, according to The Hechinger Report.

The research also found that Black students in the eighth grade in 2003 were 71 percent less likely to be classified with a learning disability than their white counterparts. But in 2015, Black students in the eighth grade were 55 percent less likely to be identified as having a learning disability.

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

The study did not analyze or evaluate how effective special education services in the South were, but Morgan told NBC News that his study shows there’s a need to restructure federal policy so students of color don’t fall between the cracks. He also noted that the expensive cost of and difficulty in acquiring special education services should be addressed on a nationwide scale.

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

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.