Special ed classification rates show need for targeted support

Special ed classification rates show need for targeted support

(Pa.) Disparities in special education classification rates between states, especially among some subgroups, may be reflective of school or district resources rather than discriminatory practices, according to new research.

A study released last week by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute found the range of classification percentages was at the lowest point in Texas, where 8.6 percent of students were identified as needing special education services–the highest was 17.8 percent in New York.

The authors noted, however, that variation among the states’ classification rates can be linked to how states define and implement due process procedures; how they identify students with special needs; and how many resources schools can access once students have been identified.

“A low or high classification rate does not necessarily indicate inequitable practices, but rather, reflects local resources and varying contributing factors that contribute to possible over- or under-classification,” authors of the report wrote. “English learners, in particular, are often misclassified for special education when schools do not have (English as a second language) specialists to identify language proficiency levels and to collaborate with general education teachers to target supports and interventions aimed at increasing language proficiency skills.”

More than 6.5 million students–or 13 percent of total public school enrollment in the U.S.–were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Act during the 2014-15 school year.

New York, Pennsylvania, Maine and Massachusetts classified more than 17 percent of all students as in need of special education. Texas, Idaho, Hawaii and Colorado had the lowest rates, identifying 10.5 percent or less.

Researchers at the Frontline Institute surveyed more than 3,600 educators, administrators and special education service providers, asking participants about their perceptions of special education in their schools and districts.

While 56 percent of respondents nationwide said they believe that the appropriate number of students are classified in their local system, 34 percent of special education teachers surveyed from the four states with the lowest rates said that far or somewhat more students should be classified in their local system. Nearly 29 percent of special education teachers who responded from those states with the highest rates said far or somewhat fewer students should be classified.

Excerpts from survey respondents also showed a desire for improved general education interventions, and some respondents noted that English learners were often identified as special education students even though language was the only barrier affecting their learning.

In 2015, a federal survey of best practices among states with the highest populations of English language learners highlighted a need for policies that would help educators accurately recognize learning disabilities in order to curb misidentification.

The study, published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and the Regional Educational Laboratory at WestEd, found that factors such as basic cultural differences are often overlooked in identifying and properly addressing the needs of English learners in special education.

According to that survey, the two most common factors that lead to misidentification of students with learning disabilities were a lack of understanding among educators as to why an English learning student is not making adequate progress, and poorly designed and implemented referral processes.