Overidentification in special education has two potential meanings. First, it can mean that there are too many students being identified as needing special education in a school or district. Estimates of students in need of special education services have ranged from 3% to 8% of total students. Central office staff typically attempt to stay within the 10% range however, it sometimes reaches highs of 13% or more. Second, it may mean that a certain group of students is over represented in the special education population in comparison to their make up in the general population of students. Ideally, the proportion of the subgroup of students in the special education population should be identical to that of the general population.
Overidentification of students in need of special education services results in a number of negative outcomes for the students, the school district, and to a larger extent society. Students identified as needing special education services often don’t receive the same rigorous curriculum as those not receiving services. Therefore, they are not as prepared for the demands of the next grade level as unidentified students. They frequently have lowered expectations placed upon them, may be socially stigmatized, may display greater behavioral problems requiring disciplinary action, and are more likely to not complete school or they complete school with less skills than other students.
Overidentified students place an unnecessary burden on already limited school resources and take away existing resources from those students who are really in need of them. Staff time is taken up in extra preparation for their daily needs, to go to extra meetings, and to complete evaluations. If discipline becomes an issue, then administrator time gets taken away from other duties.
In regard to potential impacts on society, overidentification’s reduced demands, watered-down curriculum, and potential social stigmatization leaves students unprepared to continue with their education or lacking the skills necessary to take a productive role in the workplace and support themselves. When these students are unable to become productive members of society after school then their educational institution has failed them.
Some of the reasons for overidentification include:
- Poverty and income inequality
- Inequity in schools funding
- Inability to access early interventions
- Lack of training in regard to appropriate referrals to and placements in special education
- Lack of understanding of diverse populations
Research has found that students from impoverished backgrounds are more likely to be unprepared for the rigors of education and lack the background knowledge and experiences of their more affluent peers. The Head Start Program was developed in 1965 to meet this need, and to provide comprehensive services to low income families during the preschool years. However, while gains have been made, a gap still exists, and many families are unable to access these services for a variety of reasons.
Schools are not always funded appropriately with many schools requiring students to bring in their own work materials, lack resources for paraprofessional support, or lack the funds to have full day kindergarten or hire enough teachers to have smaller classes. When schools are funded appropriately, the district often determines where and when the money is spent, which may not always be on the biggest needs or those that will make the biggest difference in the long-term.
Unfortunately, some schools don’t always make appropriate referrals or placement decisions. Sometimes they wait too long before making a referral and sometimes they make one too soon. The advent of Response to Intervention (RTI) may help in this area as schools should have data about how students respond to interventions before making a referral.
Lack of understanding about different cultures and the way children learn may also lead to students being over identified, especially for behavior concerns. Not every child is able to sit in a chair for six hours a day learning. There are many ways to learn and students need to be exposed to as many of them as possible before being identified with a disability.
Parents and educators need to be aware that over identification of students for special educational services has short and long-term consequences. These consequences affect the student, the school, and, potentially, society. It is the school’s responsibility to keep an open mind, look at individual differences and all possibilities prior to identifying a student as in need of special education services.