Describing Special Education Over-identification

Still under construction

One encounters hundreds of  internet articles on over-identification not easily generalized for the broader view.  Here we begin to define terms, variables and issues in support of the broader view.  Description of the problem is essential. Theories explain and predict.

The Kennedy family advocated for retarded citizens. This is Mrs. Kennedy. Her husband was President John Kennedy, and he too advocated for rights of children.


IDEA 2004 sets clear standards for proper identification of at-risk children for placement in special education.  The flow of regulations is downward from congress, the executive branch, the supreme court, the department of education, state agencies to superintendents.  The local superintendent represents the Local Educational Agency (LEA) to the State Educational Agency (SEA).  IEP teams make placement decisions and parents approve or disapprove.  Teams consist of evaluators, regular classroom teachers, related services personnel, special education teachers and parents.  Facilitators guide decision-making on behalf of the LEA.

Appropriate Identification

Placing disabled school children in special education who meet placement criteria, on a case-by-case basis, with reference to IDEA categories, Child Find requirements, and FAPE regulations.  

Well prepared eligibility teams understand IDEA requirements and take time for objective decisions.  The district facilitator has strong background in the law, group dynamics, community norms and staff qualifications. The director of special education monitors placements for fairness and accuracy.  Children are placed and retained in special  education by IEP (eligibility) teams.  They listen to evaluation reports by teachers, psychologists, doctors and speech-language pathologists.  The criteria are clinical and educational.  Teacher reports emphasize academic performance.  Official  paperwork is filled out, signed and kept  on file.  The team can say no to admission.  In over 100,000 American schools, millions of IEP meetings are held yearly.

Multiple Identifications
Placing disabled children in more than one IDEA category for  parallel or collaborative interventions.
Many children placed in special education have symptoms of different disabilities, such as TBI pupils needing physical therapy and speech-language pathology, or intellectually challenged pupils needing occupational therapy, speech-language pathology and sight intervention.  The IEP reflects the selection of services from different specialists.  Dismissal from one category eligibility does not preclude continuation in another. Children are dismissed from the speech and language impairment while specific learning disability status continues.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Identification

Placing disabled children in learning situations appropriate in location, intensity and peer access.

The location can include the regular classroom with support, resource room, the speech room, or off-campus facility.  Intensity concerns the amount of treatment time assigned to any one category intervention.  Peer access concerns the amount of time spent with children who are not enrolled in special education.  IEPs show which specialists provides services.  The well-prepared IEP team recognizes the wisdom of constant re-assessment of LRE placements.

Continuing Identification

Continuing  placement in special education to sustain and improve academic performance through one or more interventions.

Where one or more interventions do not mitigate effects of one or more disabilities, and where reaching education goals has fallen short, special education status can be renewed.  Each year the IEP team meets to deliberate on the success of the educational plan.  There must be one evaluator (psychologist, reading specialist or speech-language pathologist) present to report on disability indications. Special education teachers confirm progress or the lack thereof. Special education children can be renewed for another year of selected services as recorded on the adjusted IEP form.  Extra meetings can be held during the year if questions arise.  Three-year evaluation is required.  Well-prepared IEP teams promote dismissal from special education in timely fashion.




In local school IEP meetings the foregoing IDEA standards are distorted in application:  “Distortion, a statement that twists fact; a misrepresentation” (Free Dictionary).  On IEP forms, and in oral comments, disability characteristics are misrepresented.  IDEA category criteria and FAPE regulations are violated by the collaborative actions of  IEP teams.  The U. S. Office of Civil Rights documents violations of  children’s rights:  “An important responsibility of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability against students with disabilities. OCR receives numerous complaints and inquiries in the area of elementary and secondary education involving Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Section 504). Most of these concern identification of students who are protected by Section 504 and the means to obtain an appropriate education for such students.

Several types of misidentification are suggested by our findings. There are many ways in which IDEA standards are violated with respect to the education of “struggling children.”

Inappropriate Identification

Placing children in special education who are not disabled or who need only remedial support via general education programs, thereby violating FAPE  protections.

“Inappropriate” means decisions violating IDEA 2004 eligibility regulations.  The IEP teams place non-disabled children, make careless LRE decisions, or fail to dismiss in timely fashion.  Contacts with normal peers are limited.  Statistical observations indicate IEP panels place more children than is justified by IDEA 2004 standards.  “An analysis of U.S. Department of Education data shows that the percentage of students in special education varies widely among states. While Rhode Island tops the country at 18 percent, Texas, at 9 percent, is at the bottom. The average percentage across all states is 13 percent, and two-thirds of states are above that number, according to the data.”

Girl Scouts Marching on Main Street.


Placing school children in special education at a rate higher than justified by disability criteria and statistical norms.

The most recent example is the over-identification of  learning disabled children.  Many vulnerable children who do not fit into the regular classroom are referred to special education for need of ordinary remedial services.  Boys are over-identified compared to girls.  Deficiencies in general education remedial instruction are central to the problem.  Hispanic children who lack English language abilities can show up in special education because school administrators do not know how to provide second-language programs.


Not placing disabled children in special education who are entitled to placement at least by statistical norms.

Girls are less often identified for special education.  Most teachers are women and therefore a bias might operate.  For years autistic children were under-identified considering current trends indicating a growing number of  autistic children in special education.  TBI pupils involved in sports programs might be under-identified.

Disproportional Identification

Placing non-disabled minority children in special education with reference to the proportions of such groups in the school district.  

Historic patterns of blocking minority children from school attendance continue to operate in schools.  Shunting into special education became another means of  isolating minority children from mainstream children.   The patterns have included abuses of  IDEA provisions of Least Restrictive Environment for special education instruction. The tendency to keep children enrolled indefinitely without dismissal and adjustments in LEA is rampant.  Members of IEP teams often carry out misplacements unwittingly, or seek to please school authorities while remaining mute about misidentification.  The problem nationally has been known since the 1960s.  Black children are particularly vulnerable.  

Substitute Identification

Substituting special education placement for general education remedial support.

Many “struggling children” including those who are “poor” and “disadvantaged” need remedial support along the lines of Title I programs.  These programs have failed for many children.  Regular education teachers do not have teaching skills suitable for matching up with learning styles and needs.  Or general education teachers are over-taxed by difficult-to-teach children in their classrooms.  General education takes advantage of sending struggling children to special education where skilled remedial teaching is available.  The children suffer the stigma of special education placement along with lowered educational expectations.  Where Response to Intervention programs have been established, fewer children are enrolled in special education. 

False Identification

Placing disabled children in the wrong special education placement categories.

The best known example is placing low-performing children in the special education category for retarded pupils.  Black children faced this school pattern as a true civil rights concern.  Placing gifted children in the learning disability category because of learning style differences is documented.  Categories of Disability under IDEA 

Mis-Timed Identification

Placing children in special  education who should have  been placed at earlier times, or later times beginning with preschool education.

IDEA covers Part C for children up to the third birthday, and Part B for school-age children, including preschoolers  (  As at-risk children pass through the developmental years into formal education, wide-ranging assessment protocols produce irregular data and placement decisions.  Placements in Part C programs based on medical and behavioral assessments cause the placements to carry forward into the elementary school as experts wait to see how “progress in the general curriculum” advances.  Other children are not identified under Part C and move forward without remedial support.  In a different category, Traumatic Brain Injury pupils are identified late because they are not referred for evaluations.

Insufficient Identification

Placing children in special education where placement evaluations are incomplete and / or  irrelevant to the general education curriculum.

This is a subtle type.  It concerns the transition to elementary school and identification during the preschool years.  Often medical personnel identify disability and indicate the need for special education services before local schools evaluate for placement.  IEP teams go along with early judgments without consideration of educational criteria.  This involves the “wait to fail” problem.

Forced Identification

Placing  at-risk children in special education because of legal and / or pressures on school district administrators.

Courts, attorneys, local advocates, school authorities and parents can all bring strong pressures on IEP teams to make alternate placement determinations.  Court cases have   shaped decisions about particular children, or numbers of children in a class.  Strong-willed parents through knowledge, skill and legal appears bring about changes not otherwise made.  Superintendents push on special education personnel to place more or fewer children in special education by using budget considerations as ad hoc criteria.  Special education pupils can refuse to be in special education.

Recurrent Misidentification

In spite of IEP meetings, keeping children in special education year after year without dismissal and without meaningful adjustments for least restrictive environment.

This amounts to what has been called historically, “Warehousing.”  On a grand scale,  the Supreme Court’s establishing FAPE rights forced local schools into a process of adherence to Least Restrictive Environment.  Parent advocacy groups such as the ARC forced the issue.  On a lesser scale, the problem remains at full intensity. Many schools still keep children in the same IEP straight-jacket for years, even “carrying paper” on them when services are no longer needed.  Many parents, too, will not let their children out of special education. Failing to dismiss promptly is a major problem in special education.  Warehousing is a  negative global attitude to all aspects of testing for special education determination.


First determination of special education placement is the point at which Front-Loaded Bias comes into play.  It accounts for national statistics showing American schools are biased toward the over-identification of at-risk children for special education services and interventions.  Specific learning disability is commonly mentioned as the prime example.  The U. S. courts and the U. S. Congress have brought this problem to public attention and have pushed the U. S. Department of Education into regulatory actions to reduce over-identification.  Disproportional placements of non-disabled minority children continue to receive some discussion nationally.

Back-Loaded Bias in contrast is continuing to inflexibly keep children in special education even when they are non-disabled, and continuing to let their LRE placements languish from year to year.  Here the courts, congress and the department of education pay little or no attention to what might be called the “unintended consequences” of IDEA regulations. Parents believe it is best for their children to be in special education and when they object IEP teams push back.  Academics are unable to do site-based studies of the statistical patterns of long-term identifications. Pressure to ignore the 3-year evaluation sustains the problem.   Minority students such as native American and black children become long-term victims of back loaded bias.  In some states and in some schools such results are disgraceful.


Any explanation of over-identification must start with questions of why engineering efforts to rectify the problem have little impact over many, many years.  Amy Zirkelbach writing in 2002 laid out the problem nicely:  ”

“Concerns about the overidentification of ethnic and culturally diverse students in special education first gained national attention in the 1960s as civil rights advocates, educators, administrators, and policy makers began raising questions about the overrepresentation of minority students in classes for the mentally retarded. To a great extent, disproportionate placement still remains today. Although the problems varies from state to state and region to region, it is seen as an ongoing national problem which may result in students who are unserved, misclassified or inappropriately labeled, or receive services that do not meet their needs. Disproportionate placement of these students into special education classes may be seen as a form of discrimination.”

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