Category Archives: Over-identification Categories

Since the mid 1960s the problem of special education over-identification in the U. S. has been pinpointed and debated without much progress. Under “Over-identification I, this is our first look at some factors. At-risk school children are categorized informally and formally within the system of legal categories prescribed by IDEA 2004. We find ethnicity, social, gender and cultural / linguistic factors operating outside the 14 IDEA eligibility categories. There is no surprise here inasmuch as eligibility judgments are made by people whose cultural experiences shape their decisions. Within the 14 categories, there are semantic confusions, overlap problems, and research gaps. It has been pointed by good minds that some categories require more behavioral or test information more than categories founded in medical diagnosis. Here is where the school psychologist is the central figure in providing school leadership on behavioral judgment. Beyond the categories are events like removing pupils from classroom participation or school. Such judgments impact non-disabled minority children.

24. Special Education Overidentification: Deafness

Early identification can raise the same issues a autism in that eligibility criteria change throughout the first eight years of life.  Medical conditions must be translated into learning descriptions and predictions.  


23. Special Education Overidentification: Deaf-Blindness

Initial identification of deaf-blind school children likely occurs before school and entails medical assessment.  It is highly probable that special education is required for these children given the double jeopardy of two sensory outages.  Intellectual deficits for lack of sensory input can occur.

Long-term placement issues for  more involved children might be more critical.

Least restrictive environment?

Access to the general curriculum?

We  should  remember to place these questions under the rubric of over-identification.

FAPE issues can result from the lack of proper equipment and devices, updating and repair.

22. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Multiple Disabilities

“…means concomitant [simultaneous] impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.”

21. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Orthopedic Impairment

“…means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g.,cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

Categories of Disability under IDEA Law

No immediate information is available for overidentification of orthopedic impairment in schools.  Children who have visible anomalies present more concrete evidence of disability than emotional disturbance, for example.  However, there is no guarantee that orthopedic impairment leads to functional deficits and /or reduced educational performance.  There is always a tendency to over-attribute deficit to the physically handicapped.  A gifted child with a missing leg would not be expected to have a school disability unless he or she qualified as an emotionally handicapped child, for example.  And is there a prosthesis?

20. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Vision Impairment Including Blindness

Vision impairments vary widely by types and degrees of  disability, with and without clear medical signs.  Scattered reports give emphasis to under-identification of disabled children who have reading problems.  School screening does not catch all children with sight problems, and busy teachers do not always see the connections between vision problems and learning tasks requiring detection and processing of visual material.  Where there are clear medical symptoms present, detection rate is higher. 

Where children’s problems are detected, and glasses are purchased, many children either do not use their glasses all the time, or break them, or lose them.

It is unclear what the special education referral and placement patterns are for vision impairments.  There is some experience to suggest children who are identified as having vision problems are not referred for special education evaluation.  Health records show in a few cases children who have vision problems but without any follow up.

“According to research, as many as 75% of children that are considered learning disabled have clinically significant visual problems. Yet, these children are often labeled as having a specific learning disability, dyslexic or as having ADD before vision is ruled out as a possible contributory factor. Once labeled and eligible for special education services, most of the time good visual skills are NOT a goal listed on an Individual Education Plan set forth by Multi-Disciplinary Teams” (Vision Association, 2009).  cf. Sensory Problems

19. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Emotional Disturbance

The category emotional disturbance requires a significant degree of clinical judgment and therefore misidentification is invited.  The child’s educational performance must be affected for special education placement. HHence a gifted child who acts out may be incorrectly placed in special education.

Boys are at risk for false placement.  Both their learning styles and emotional styles are different from females.  Most teachers are women who dislike disruptions of instruction.

Clinical judgment is highly qualitative, based on descriptions, reports and qualitative scales. Learning and relationships can be impaired causing parents and teachers stress.  Symptoms vary widely from internal feelings and moods to physical symptoms to outward patterns of misbehavior.

Schools lack resources for behavior training and counseling so special education placement is a place to send behavioral cases.


Non-disabled minority children are said to occupy places in special education in Emotional Disturbance category.  Non-disabled Black pupils too often meet this fate.  Placing non-disabled black children in special education is dangerous for them.

Edward Fergus, writing for Essential Educator (http://essential, “Distinguishing Difference from Disability: The Common Causes of Racial/Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education,” reports:

Since Lloyd Dunn’s report (1968) on the overrepresentation of Black and Latino students in special education countless federal, state and district reports, as well as research studies exist that document the various facets of educational practice impacting these rates. Most recently the over-representation picture is troubling: in 2008, the school enrollment of Blacks (15.5%) differed greatly from their representation in special education (20.4%) and among students with an Emotional Disturbance classification (29.1%); while enrollment of Whites (55.5%) was mirrored in special education (55.9%) and among students with an ED classification (56.3%).”





18. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Hearing Impairment

Mild hearing loss is not always detected.  Ear infections can cause variable transient hearing loss coming and going over the school year.

Schools screen for hearing problems but some go undetected. There are periodic ear infections reducing alertness and learning ability. Follow-up audiology is not carried out. Poor hearing-aid maintenance lets the hearing problem impact classroom communication.

“Childhood hearing loss is a very common problem within our schools. There are an estimated 8 million children in North America who have some degree of hearing loss. Even a very mild loss can affect how a student learns. Every teacher in the early elementary school can expect to have one-fourth to one-third of his or her students without normal hearing on any given day. Children spend at least 45% of their day engaged in active listening activities. It is obvious that teachers need to be aware of the impact such a loss can have on learning” (MSN Education).

Hearing problems mimic attention deficits.  Teachers do not always suspect hearing loss so they do not make referrals for special education assessment.  Screening can occur only once a  year and hearing loss can come and go during that period.

17. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Autism

The school identification rate for autism has increased in recent years.  From this observation one can say the condition was under-identified.  One can also say it is heading toward over-identification rate.  More data are needed.

According to the Center for Public Education, autism as a category has grown fast and now it “accounts for around 4 percent of all students with disabilities.”

Special education: At a glance / The Center for Public Education

Autism more recently has been placed under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder.  It is telling.  There are many variations of symptoms to sort out.  Some children are highly verbal, and others are not.  Attention and memory are involved.  The social skills criterion is emphasized.  Awkward gate and balance are seen.  Eye gaze is averted.  The voice can be husky in quality.  Special gifts such as number memory are documented.  Eye-hand coordination for writing is poor in some children.  Unchecked narratives on or off topic are witnessed.  Some are quite intelligent in the gathering of facts.  Verbal children with a good flow of language have difficulty following discourse rules for turn taking, topic reference and perspective taking.

And we do not know enough about the uniform effects of autism on performance in the general curriculum.  Typically it is uneven and not always bad.  Reading is key to early education and defining autism as a reading disorder brings up interesting questions.

No one specialty has all the tools necessary for proper educational assessment.  This can lead to mis-evaluation.  Indeed the disorder has been a mystery for many years for the most part and the average educator has a hard time sorting out the problems.

The growth of the number of ASD children placed in special education could reflect inaccurate assessments and / or increasing public and professional awareness.


In April of 2011, a flurry of news reports indicated early identification of autism is desirable and possible through behavioral observations of speech, social and non-verbal communication.  There are risks here for later school special education placements and over-identification:

First, early detection is often made by doctors  Medical diagnosis might not hold and predict developmental advances.  How the early behaviors are transformed by cognitive development along the lines of Jean Piaget’s definitive theory is not predicted.

Second, stress is not placed on “dynamic assessment” (pre-post, baseline, clinical trials) to evaluate the effects of treatment and to produce data to limit special education placement.  The diagnosis of autism could change with involvement in preschool reading programs.

Third, the medical diagnosis might cause parents to have an inflexible views of their children’s abilities to the point where they continue to believe in the medical diagnosis when social communication is improving and falling within normal limits.

Fourth, there are huge translation problems as infants moves through stages of IDEA 2004 criteria (cf. Birth to Three).


 “We need to understand where and how at-risk children are admitted into special education. We need to know who decides and by what criteria. With this sort of information we can begin to control misidentifications through school leadership.  A starting point is state-to-state early intervention programs.”

Infants and toddlers from 0 to 3 years can receive early intervention services under Part C of IDEA 2004. Then autistic child moves into Part B with a transition meeting with the local school district (LEA).  Criteria change.  

The early program will be pre-academic and preschool.  There will be a “wait to fail” period before the child transitions to a final IDEA category.  Psychologist must come into play to use tests and scales to redefine autism.  It is not automatic that the autistic child will be found eligibility for special education.  He or she still has to qualify because the medical disability must impact progress in the general curriculum.

When the autistic child is seven the medical personnel  who made the early diagnosis will not be present at the IEP / eligibility meeting but parents are likely to continue to refer to it as authoratative.


16. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Developmental Delay

Developmental delay is an all-encompassing preschool dragnet for children who present a wide spectrum of biological, sensory-neural, linguistic and social symptoms suggesting disability.  Their conditions evolve and later at the school age where the general education curriculum is introduced to them and learning issues are pinpointed their special education placements are refined into one of several of the  IDEA 2004 categories.

Early intervention legislation is one of the peak accomplishments of Congressional action in education.  Yet it has its risks as to overidentification.  Two factors are primary:

1. Physician diagnosis.  It is positive the medical community helps identify from birth children who need educational support.  On the other hand these diagnoses can occur without sufficient educational input related to later school experiences.  The diagnoses have weight and tend to carry forward with less critical evaluation than is desirable.  Parents form early opinions about the need for special education when educational evaluations have yet to occur.

2. Structural levels:  A two-year old who is identified must transfer to school early intervention at age 3 and then later transfer to the general curriculum for elementary school.  Transition points can lead to miscommunication about the choice of special education categories, or whether none is required.

cf. Birth to 21

15. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Intellectual Disability (Mental Retardation)

After Rosa’s Law, the category of mental retardation was changed to “Intellectual Disability.” 

From the beginning of the civil rights movement for the handicapped, mental retardation has been a controversial category for special education placements.  From the beginning it was the category for placement carrying with it high stigma and often used as a place to put low achieving minority pupils.  As there are many causes of under-achievement, mis-identification is a hazard for evaluators.  In the broadest issue, this category of placement has been a civil rights issues.

cf. Rosa’s Law (S.2781) and Speech-Language Pathology