Navigating a school system is already challenging for students with disabilities. But for students of color with disabilities, racial bias and human judgment can make it even more difficult to get the support they need to succeed. Research is conflicting — some studies suggest that students of color are over-identified for special needs, while others show they are under-identified. Either way, this misidentification can limit their achievement in school and beyond.

There are few shifts in a child’s education more powerful than being identified for special education services. This crucial decision can change the life trajectory of a student — for better or for worse. That is why it is so critical for schools to get this right. In our Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education, we discuss what it takes for schools to build strong identification processes. Here’s a passage from Chapter 3: Find me.

For certain racial subgroups, students are over-identified for certain disability types — a phenomenon called “disproportionality.” For example, 2.63% of all Black students, nationally, are identified with an intellectual disability. Though this may not be a large number at first glance, it’s almost two and half times the rate for White students. While 17% of school-age children are Black, they represent 33% of students identified as having an intellectual disability.

At the same time, recent research suggests that paradoxically, under-identification is also a problem. One study compared Black and Latino students with White students at similar levels of achievement and with similar risk factors (such as low family education, low-income and low birth weight). In this analysis, the disproportionality actually reversed. They found that Black and Latino students were less likely to be identified for special education services across five disability categories. Black students were 58% less likely to be diagnosed for learning disabilities and Latino students were 29% less likely. In these cases, schools deprive students of color of the services they need.

Sometimes, a higher rate of disability diagnoses for students of color is not over-identification, but rather the result of environmental circumstances: Black families often face worse environmental conditions and are therefore more likely to have higher levels of lead in their blood, be born prematurely and suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome — which can all play a part in the development of a disability in a child.

But over- and under-identification of students of color with disabilities can also be caused by human judgment and bias. Teachers are less likely to believe in a student of color’s ability to succeed than a White student’s ability to succeed, a problem known as the belief gap. If teachers already have low expectations for Black students, they could possibly ignore signs of a learning disability, leading to under-diagnosis.

At the same time, over-diagnosis can occur as a result of cultural differences between students of color and teachers and school psychologists who are disproportionately White. While students of color now make up the majority of all students enrolled in schools across the country, the teacher workforce remains 80% white.  Certain cultural behavior common in Black households can have a different meaning for White people, making it more likely that Black students will be misdiagnosed and/or given the wrong support. This is a serious problem — the school to prison pipeline already disproportionately affects students with disabilities and even more intensely targets students of color with disabilities.

Thus, racial bias can affect disability diagnoses in contradictory ways. Certain students in certain areas can be overrepresented, while other students are underrepresented. At a district level, both trends can happen at the same time and hurt students. An incorrect diagnosis can limit a child to lowered expectations, lock them into segregated learning environments, or deprive them of services they need.

So, what can be done? While it is difficult to determine if students from a particular racial group are under-identified or over-identified for a particular disability category, schools should use early, objective, universal screening processes to help get the right services to the students that need them.

In An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education, we conclude:

…[I]t is crucial that school leaders and staff are aware of racial bias in its many forms. They must investigate their own process and combat whatever racial trends they may have. That way they can ensure they deliver the right services to the right students.