Category Archives: Over-identification Solutions

Awareness of Special Education Over-identification

Our work here suggests a good part of the U. S. problem of special education over-identification of at risk and non-disabled minority children (disproportionality) is a lack of everyday awareness among school personnel.  Where schools make a good-faith effort to dig into the problem objectivity and skill develop.

Main road in Lakeside, Arizona, in the White Mountains

Main road in Lakeside, Arizona, in the White Mountains

For example, Nicole Ely reports on an interesting finding in the San Rafael City Schools schools (California) on the identification of “emotionally disturbed” children.

The state found a disproportional number of white students classified as emotionally disturbed. “Because of the disparity, the district will have to review its policies and procedures and will be required to reserve 15 percent, or $100,000, of their special education funds for coordinated intervening services to prevent over identification of students.”

The district had worked hard to minimize over-placement of minority children but this finding was a true surprise.  “Our staff does a really good job with the assessment,” [Miss Amy] Baer said. “[Because of the amount of students already identified by other districts] it’s difficult for the high school district to fix this.”

The article identifies one reason for over-identification when one district sends a pupil to another with a legally binding IEP.  Still the new school staff needs to check these transfers to see if the assessments are valid.


Decontextualizing School Disproportionality By Numbers

Yes, we agree that statistical analysis of the school population should be used as a guide to reducing the over-identification of non-disabled minority children. But alone it is another silly proposed technical solution making it easy for decision-makers to avoid the issue because they now have science at work.  This is a public policy issue, not a technique and training issue.

The problem of disproportionality has been identified for decades.  The law has been in place for years and years.  IDEA 2004 regulations are clear.  What is not discussed are the social and public policy contexts working off the page to mitigate solutions.

Risk Analysis
Risk index is proposed as a kind of silver bullet:

“The risk index is the percentage of a given racial/ethnic group that is in a specific category. Thus, for instance, if we find that 8% of all Latino students in a school corporation have been suspended, then we can say that Latino students in that school corporation have an 8% chance of being suspended. The risk index answers the question: What is the risk that students in a given group will be in a specific category?”

But measurement is fiddling while Rome is burning.

The chief problem of interpretation of disproportionality  — typically centered around black school children — is decontextualization of American education.  As though it exists in a utopian vacuum of precise methods and procedure.

Fundamental Cause

Black children are misplaced in special education because historically  mainstream Americans do not like black children in schools.  School personnel are tacit supporters of this de facto policy.

Think back on the Civil War.  George Wallace and the schoolhouse door. Jim Crow laws.  Brown versus the Board of Education.  Forced busing.  The historical markers are there for all to read.

“Brown v. Board of Education347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmarkUnited States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Fergusondecision of 1896 which allowed state-sponsored segregation.”  Wikipedia

If you are forced to take black children into your school, then the next best solution is to put them in special education indefinitely and maybe call them retarded.

No, complex measurement schemes simply postpone attention to the problem of changing knowledge, attitudes and actions.

blow up chair in cottage

School superintendents are the IDEA legal officers who need to take responsibility for the problem.  They are typically paid well, educated in school law, have the authority and can act to initiate special projects.

Diagnosing Education Over-Identification 2011

Disproportional placement of at-risk children in American special education programs – the over-identification problem — is part of a historical pattern to block unwanted children from school participation.  It dates back to the beginning of compulsory education in the 1920s.

The premise of efforts to reduce over-identification should be the view that many Americans do not want native American, handicapped, poor, Hispanic, bilingual, migrant and black children in schoolrooms but federal law and the supreme court have forced educators to take them in.  Internally, schools have used special education as a place to put unwanted children away from normal instruction as much as possible.

Right Calls

Those who work in schools who seek to behave correctly should be prepared for resistance to efforts to fairly place and exit children from special education, owing to a system where most participants do not grasp the historical issues in operation or are afraid of causing trouble.

One must learn to recognize eligibility plays as they develop and make the right call, the way NFL defensive backs anticipate the opponent’s strategy and play calling. The NFL back understands the other team wants to win but he can try to “jump the route,” get a pick, and take it to the house!


We recommend asking four questions every time you are in a position to exit a child or determine placement:

1. Who refers?

2. Who evaluates?

3. Who places?

4. Who benefits?


Teachers are the engine of special education referrals but parents, physicians and other interested parties contribute.  Teachers want to reduce the number of “difficult to teach” children.  When 20% of a class contains DTT children, the class is at risk for failure.  The DTT model is a powerful explanation of referrals.


Related services people are the key here. They objectify and validate placements and retentions through evaluation procedures but their record is checkered, especially in using standardized tests, recognizing cultural differences and using correct placement criteria. Be alert!


The IEP (eligibility) team entails dynamic fast-moving processes with latent conflicts of interest influencing outcomes.  Seldom do members advocate for the child.  Each team member has something to gain from placing and retaining children in special education.  Reminders of compliance, speed and confusion work against contrary opinions.


Administrators gain funds for the district and compliance assurances (although Congress has acted to control this problem). Teachers avoid DTT children. Parents gain help for their children. Related services personnel gain secure employment.  General education avoids having to maintain remedial programs.


Together, these powerful forces work efficiently no matter what congress, researchers and journalists say.  Misplacement happens swiftly and surely, making detection almost impossible. Participants when questioned about over-identification are oblivious to the problem, or afraid to speak.

Stop sign along country road.

Now the problem of over-identification has spread in an ugly fashion to suspensions. It appears to be a different issue but it is cut from the same cloth of disenfranchisement. For 100 years schools and communities have demonstrated endless creativity to find new ways to segregate unwanted children.

Parents do not understand the risks of placement, and IEP meetings do not make this clear to them.  Parents often do not  understand the history or the legal paperwork of IEP meetings.  Disadvantaged families are even more at risk.


A while back we proposed half in jest a direct approach.  It involves the local school administrator writing directly to the staff and telling them to stop placing so many children in special education, and stop keeping them there for an unacceptable length of time. Thinking on it, it is not a half-bad solution.  In fact, it is a powerful, proper and cost-effective solution.

States are supposed to monitor LEAs to make sure they are doing the job.  The STOP approach can do it.

“Dear Colleagues.  

I have noticed we have more than the predicted numbers of children in special education, and our district is part of a national pattern showing minority children in particular  too often go into special education.  The national reports indicate too that children are placed in the wrong categories, or some categories are over-used. Let’s try to cut back on our special education enrollment by 10%.  Each person must use his or her skills to make rock solid eligibility judgments.

I am providing a simple one page report form with a checklist and a place for comments.  Please turn this in to me by January 15.  We want to hear from you as to what you have done personally.  In the long-run such information might give us a knowledge base for what we can all do together to combat over-identification.

Thanks for all you do!  As usual, you will hear back from me on your report.

Missy Jane Rogers


Castle Solution

In May of 2003, and just prior to IDEA reauntorizaitons, Heartland reviewed recommendations made by House Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Michael Castle (R-Delaware). He noted that “current methods of identifying children with disabilities lack validity or reliability.”

The committee proposed reforms in a 292 page proposal, The Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act. Key points:

1. “Emphasizing early intervention strategies aimed at correcting reading deficiencies before children are identified as disabled. School districts would be granted flexibility to use up to 15 percent of their federal IDEA funds for such pre-referral services.

2. Strengthening parents’ control over decisions regarding their child’s education by allowing them to bypass process-heavy regulations pertaining to the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

3. Eliminating “IQ discrepancy” models for identifying children with disabilities.

4. Reducing heavy paperwork demands currently placed on special education teachers.

5. Easing federal regulations dictating how school officials are permitted to discipline special education students. The new rules would allow uniform discipline for all children and would no longer prohibit school officials from expelling or suspending special education students when they consider it necessary to ensure school safety.”

____________ School Speech Pathology Blog ____________

Heinz Solution

Joe Smydo, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (October 23, 2009), reported on a major study of the effects of pre-kindergarten classes on the early education of poor and developmentally-delayed children vulnerable for special education placement. The study lasted three years and involved 10,000 children. Results indicated a boost in the development of social and academic skills. The children improved in math, literacy and social skills. The study was supported by The Heinz Endowments.

Girl Scouts Marching on Main Street.

Pre-K programs are sometimes dropped by school administrators but the study showed:

1. “Pre-K Counts classes benefited children of various racial and ethnic groups.

2. Classes rated high-quality had more dramatic effects on children than those judged to be of lower quality.

3. Despite poverty and other disadvantages, 80 percent of children in the study demonstrated skills necessary for success in kindergarten — well above what would have been expected without the program.

4. While the participating school districts traditionally placed 18 percent of high-risk children in special-education programs in kindergarten, only about 2 percent of Pre-K Counts children required those services.

5. The children in the study ranged in age from 3 to 6 and attended classes for four to 24 months. Those who spent more time in the classes had larger gains than peers who attended for shorter periods.”

The Heinz study adds weight to the recommendations of IDEA 2004 for early invention. The reduction in special education placements is remarkable. One policy implication is whether local schools have the capacity to shift resources toward early support. IDEA allows flexible funding but pre-kindergarten education is not a traditional school priority.

____________ School Speech Pathology Blog ____________

Massachusetts Solution

Matthew Deninger looks at special education and race in Massachusetts, the problem of “disproportionality.” “Despite these positive trends and obvious success stories, there are aspects of the special education system where much work remains. Disproportionality is one of those areas.” Mitigating strategies are mentioned:

1. Awareness of bias within the IEP Team:

“Are students from certain backgrounds more susceptible to particular disabilities, or are the IEP Teams charged with determining a student’s eligibility exhibiting some kind of bias when identifying disabilities? As the body of research grows in this area, we are better able to understand and contextualize this phenomenon. For instance, researchers have found that IEP Team bias is a factor. When teachers or parents refer a student to be evaluated for disabilities, they typically make their own informal diagnosis (“That kid definitely has ADD…”). After evaluative testing has been completed, these same teachers and parents are involved in deciding whether or not the student has a disability, and a self-fulfilling prophecy can ensue that reflects acceptable community norms.

2. Child study teams are helpful:

When a student struggles, a teacher can refer him or her to a child study team instead of referring the student directly to the special education department and asking for an evaluation. Child study teams are composed of both general education teachers and specialists, and it is their job to consult with the teacher and suggest classroom strategies that may benefit the student. After a few weeks of implementing these strategies, the child study team meets with the teacher again. If the strategies worked and the student shows progress, no special education referral is made. If the strategies do not work, the child study team proposes new ideas and makes more suggestions. Only after the child study team has exhausted its “bag of tricks” and has seen no progress in the student’s situation is a referral for a special education evaluation finally made. By focusing on instructional strategies that the general education teacher can employ, child study teams help prevent disproportionate numbers of students from being unnecessarily evaluated for disabilities.

3. Early social and pre-social skills work:

New York City, Baltimore, and several other large school districts teach social skills to preschool and early elementary school students as part of the curriculum. Students learn appropriate ways to resolve and prevent conflicts and to behave appropriately in a variety of contexts. Studies show that such interventions help students who are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems. Early organizational skill development too has been useful in preventing learning difficulties and the exacerbation of learning disabilities.

4. Professional development in differentiated instruction and cultural proficiency:

In order for the general education classroom teacher to be able to reach all students of all abilities and learning styles, high quality professional development is necessary in two main areas: differentiated instruction and cultural proficiency. Differentiated instruction responds to the individual needs of learners by presenting information in a variety of ways, engaging students in a variety of learning activities, and using a variety of assessments to draw on each student’s strengths. Cultural proficiency encourages teachers to build relationships with all students, let students know that they are valued, and acknowledge individual and group differences to create an environment of trust and mutual respect.”

Alaska Solution

Consistent with IDEA 2004, The State of Alaska published “legal citations” for evaluation and eligibility of special education pupils.

“States must have in effect policies and procedures designed to prevent inappropriate overidentification or disproportionate representation by race or ethnicity of children with disabilities, including particular disability categories (Alaska). 

Disproportionality refers to the overrepresentation/overidentification or under representation/under identification of the number of students of a particular racial/ethnic group in any given area of education.  The over or under representation of racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse students in special education has been considered one of the most significant challenges faced across the country in the last few decades.”

Eligibility criteria were spelled out for every category of disability to guide IEP teams in making decisions. Here are the criteria for speech or language impaired pupils:

“A. exhibit a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects educational performance; and

B. require special facilities, equipment, or methods to make his or her educational program effective; and

C. be diagnosed by a physician, speech-language pathologist, or a speech-language therapist as speech or language impaired; and

D. be certified by a group consisting of qualified professionals and a parent of the child as qualifying for and needing special education services.”

Gordon Solution

The over-identification of learning disability raises questions about the critical role of the reading specialist.

IDEA 2002 indicates: “At least one person qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examinations of children, such as a school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or remedial reading teacher.”

Can reading specialists contribute to reducing LD misidentification? Here is one successful story.

David Gordon served as superintendent of the Elk Grove Schools in California. “Upon his arrival…in 1991, one of the first things Mr. Gordon observed was that 13 percent of the district’s students were placed in special education. Of that 13 percent, over half were labeled “learning disabled.” Gordon suspected that most of these children were not disabled but merely experiencing difficulty learning to read. Yet the district had no system in place to intervene at the first sign of trouble.

In 1993, Gordon went to the California State Board of Education to request a waiver in two areas: First, to allow the district to use special education personnel to develop and implement evidence-based early reading intervention programs; and second, to hold the district harmless in terms of funding if early intervention worked and fewer students were identified. The board agreed, and the results were astounding. The district’s special education rate decreased to 9 percent and student performance significantly increased. Elk Grove’s early intervention program is now available as a national model for the implementation of effective early identification and intervention programs for children at risk for reading failure” (UCP).

Collins Solution

JoAnn Collins is concerned about the over-idenfication of minority children, a problem that has persisted since IDEA was originated:

“In 1975 when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed Congress found that poor African-American children were being placed in special education much more often than other children. These difficulties continue today. In the Findings section of IDEA 2004 Congress stated about the ongoing problems with the over-identification of minority children including mislabeling the children and high drop out rates.”

Collins makes recommendations about how to decrease over-identification:

“1. Better keeping of data to include increased information about race, gender, and race by gender categories. More detailed, systematic, and comprehensive data collections would provide a better sense of demographic representation in special education that could better help understand this issue.

2. More analytic research is needed to improve our understanding of the numerous factors that independently or in combination contribute to a disability diagnosis.

3. More people that are willing to help advocate for children in this situation. I believe that some of this issue, is related to the inability of some special education personnel to understand cultural differences.

4. Better and clearer guidelines for diagnosing disabilities that could reduce the potential for subjective judgments that are often cited for certain diagnosis.

5. More improvements are needed in general education to help children learn to read and keep up with their grade and age appropriate peers.”

The advocacy (#3) point is interesting. Who advocates for reducing over-identification? Government agencies? Professional organizations? Think tanks? Parent groups?

Texas Solution

Write and Bankston (ASHA Leader, 2009) filed a report on the Texas solution to over-identification. The Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association (TSHA) launched an SLP training project in conjunction with the Texas Education Agency. Guidelines for identifying students with speech and language impairments were developed and used for a state-wide training program. “The effort began in 1999 when school-based professionals concerned about high caseloads and over-identification of students with speech impairments met during the TSHA annual convention.” Consistent identification was the aim.
A cultural diversity “template” was included. “To date, 63% of of districts/cooperatives/shared service arrangements (SSAs) in Texas received training…” in various disorders.

Follow up surveys indicated a high percentage of SLPs favoring implementation of the guidelines for articulation eligibility determination. Some 92% of respondents indicated better identification of articulation problems. “More than 75% indicated a decrease in the number of children identified as having an articulation disorder…” Consistency of judgment was a reported outcome.

Some “…70% indicated receiving more support from special education staff in their districts following implementation.”

“Responses to training issues revealed challenges: 54% reported limited time to train the SLPs in their districts, 47% reported resistance to change, and 11% reported lack of administrative support.”

The project was highlighted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association under the title, “For Districts with Disproportionate (Over) Identification of Students with Speech Impairment (SI)” Further implementation of the Guidelines for training purposes received state funding support (Texas Report).