Overidentification Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

Overidentification is a persistent and growing phenomenon in special education programs in the U.S. public school system. As society becomes more global and diverse, identifying individuals with disabilities will become more complex due to differences in culture. This paper provides a general overview of the issue of overidentification. For the purposes of this paper, the terms over identification and disproportionate representation will be used synonymously.

Keywords Assessment; Civil Rights Act of 1964; Cultural Diversity; Disproportionate Representation; Education for All Handicapped Children Act Public Law (P.L. 94-142); Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA 2004); Linguistically Diverse; Minority; Multicultural; Related Services; Special Education; Specific Learning Disability; Test Bias


Special education services have experienced tremendous growth since the initial passage of P. L. 94-142, the Educational of All Handicapped Children Act. With each subsequent reauthorization, special education and related services have expanded and been refined due to changing diversity issues, legislation, and policies of the educational system in the United States. To become eligible for special education and related services, an individual has to be identified as having a disability through the multidisciplinary process.

The process of multidisciplinary evaluation is not a perfect system in the appropriate identification of individuals with disabilities. The literature (Haynes & Pindzola, 1998; Obi & Obiakor, 2001; Paul, 2007; Taylor, 1986; Tomblin & Spriestersback, 2000; Westby, 2000) suggests that the process of multidisciplinary evaluation relies too heavily on standardized assessment instruments that may over or under identify individuals in need of special education and/or related services. Causes of disproportionate representation include:

• Shifts in demographics;

• Increases in cultural diversity; and,

• Socioeconomic issues.

The data suggests that certain groups within special education and related services are underidentified (i.e., gender or gifted) or overidentified (learning disabilities, mental retardation, behavior disorders) (Obi & Obiakor, 2001; Taylor, 1986).

Historical Perspectives

Inarguably, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was instrumental in advancing special education services in public schools. This act stated that individuals cannot be discriminated against based on race, color, or national origin while participating in a program receiving federal assistance. As a result, the Education of All Handicapped Children (P. L. 94-142) led to the equal education rights for all children regardless of ability.

Court decisions have continued to influence policies and procedures for identifying individuals for special education and/or related services. Taylor (1986) reviewed some of the most often cited instrumental decisions in case law that have an impact on overidentification as:

Lau v. Nichols, 1974; • Dianna v. Board of Education, 1973; • Larry P. v. Wilson Riles, 1977;
  • _I_and Mattie T. v. Holladay,_i_ 1977. Each case documents the precedents established by the judicial system in terms of special education services.

With these well established decisions, it is curious how individuals can still be overidentified in special education. For instance, if it is discriminatory to deny individual educational services based on linguistic differences as in the case Lau v. Nichols; then how can the same individual undergo assessment with a standardized assessment instrument that is not in the individual's native language? Furthermore, how can an assessment team determine that the individual has a disorder rather than a language difference if such a practice occurs?

Since the late 1960s, the literature has documented that individuals with cultural or linguistic differences or children of minority are overrepresented in special education or related services (Taylor, 1986). Bogatz, Hisama, Manni and Wurtz (1986) stated that certain cultural groups (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, and others) are overidentified as mildly handicapped due to assessment procedures being flawed (p. 67). Obi and Obiakor (2001) agree with over representation of African Americans in disabled special education settings; however, they raised the issue of underrepresentation of African Americans in gifted special education settings.

Defining Overidentification

The term overidentification is often used to define a group of individuals who may be unequally identified as needing special education and/or related services in relation to other cultural groups (Haynes & Pindzola, 1998; Obi & Obiakor, 2001; Paul, 2007; Taylor, 1986; Tomblin & Spriestersback, 2000; Westby, 2000). The literature uses the phrase "disproportionate representation" to identify either the over or under representation of specific cultural groups in special education (Taylor, 1986; Shepard, 1983). Over representation occurs more in high incidence special education settings; whereas under representation is more prevalent in gifted and talented programs (Haynes & Pindzola, 1998; Obi & Obiakor, 2001).

Special education is the fastest growing segment of education in the United States. The literature suggests that a large part the growth could be attributed to the overidentification of individuals based on gender, racial, and ethnic issues (Taylor, 1986; Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), 2005; Shepard, 1983). The literature has documented a disproportionate number of children from minorities who are being identified as learning disabled, mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, and/or language impaired (Haynes & Pindzola, 1998; Obi & Obiakor, 2001; OSERS, 2005; Paul, 2007; Taylor, 1986; Tomblin & Spriestersback, 2000; VanTassel-Basks, Feng, Chandler, & Swanson, n.d ; Westby, 2000).

Due to the expanding research base on disproportionate representation, this essay will focus on the overidentification issues in special education and/or related services. For the purposes of this paper, the terms over identification and disproportionate representation will be used synonymously.

IDEA of 2004

President G. W. Bush reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004. In regards to over identification or disproportionate representation, IDEA of 2004 charges states with meeting four broad based goals. The first goal for states is to develop polices and procedures to prevent the inappropriate overidentification and representation of individuals with disabilities based on race and ethnicity (OSERS, 2005).

The second goal focuses on gathering and interpreting data regarding disproportional representation. OSERS (2005) states that this goal is to monitor identification of children with disabilities; placement settings of children with disabilities; and the frequency, duration, and type of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions, taken against children with disabilities.

If overidentification occurs, states are also charged with publicly revising policies and procedures. Additionally, the school district and state must develop early intervention services for children who are disproportionately identified as needing special education services (OSERS, 2005).

The final goal of IDEA of 2004 in terms of disproportionate representation allows for assistance and activities to improve services through technical assistance, demonstration projects, the dissemination of information, and implementation of scientifically based research. Funding can be used for activities such as personnel preparation, limited English proficient children, and multicultural awareness activities (OSERS, 2005).

Further Insights

Causes of Overidentification

The literature offers several causes for overidentification of certain cultural and/or linguistic groups as well as certain disabilities in special education and/or related services (Taylor, 1986; Shepard, 1983; VanTassel-Basks, Feng, Chandler, & Swanson, n.d.; Obi & Obiakor, 2001). This section will provide brief summary information on demographic shifts, socioeconomic conditions, and educational practices that may contribute to overidentification of individuals in special education and/or related services.


As the demographics of the American society continue to shift, minority populations have increased faster than the white population (National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, n.d.). As a result, the demographics of student populations in American public schools will continue to diversify over the next 20 years (NCES, n.d.). Of the total public school enrollment, 2005 enrollment data indicates that approximately 16 % of students enrolled are African American; 19% Hispanic; 6% other minorities; and 10% white (NCES, n.d.). In 2005, Hispanics were the fastest growing minority population representing 14% of the total population (NCES, n.d.). It is predicted that by the year 2020 minorities will represent 39% of the total U. S. population (NCES, n.d.)

Of the 50 million students enrolled in public schools in the United States, minorities represent over half of the student population. The increase in minority populations means that educational personnel must be educated in cultural diversity issues. If training is not provided...

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