A designation of special needs for a K–12 student can generate a sigh of relief from some parents and a howl of outrage from others. Such a designation can also be the basis of a successful outcome for some students and the beginning of a long struggle for others to attain proper supports. A recent study published in the journal Society and Mental Health attempts to locate the source of variability in special needs designations as a basis for untangling these divergent scenarios.

Authors Dara Shifrer of Portland State University and Rachel Fish of New York University use the term “designation” rather than “diagnosis” deliberately. While most students’ special needs designations are given by a medical professional (school nurse, psychologist, neurologist, family doctor, etc.), research suggests there is also a non-medical component due to the “inextricable involvement” of teachers, parents, principals, and counselors in detection and referral. While medical diagnoses are precise and scientific (learning disabilities, ADHD, physical handicap, autism, and intellectual disabilities), school districts’ special needs categorizations are far less precise and can fall into subjective areas such as behavioral problems and lack of self-regulation. Shifrer and Fish are interested in teasing out ways in which school-based factors—non-medical subjectivity—can lead to inconsistencies in special needs designation between otherwise similar students. 

The study examines yearly data collected by the school district and state education agency on 378,919 children in grades pre-kindergarten through twelve in an unnamed “large urban district in the southwestern United States” between 2006–07 and 2011–12. Students in the study were those with only one category of special needs diagnosis; those with multiple designation were excluded, as were students who moved in and out of the district so much as to disrupt data collection. The final N-size was 346,957 students, of whom approximately 80 percent were economically disadvantaged. Sixty percent of students were Hispanic, 25 percent were black, and 30 percent English language learners (ELLs). The teaching population was similarly diverse, about 25 percent of teachers were white, 40 percent black, and 25 percent Hispanic.

The topline finding is probably not surprising. Shifrer and Fish found a huge amount of variability in special needs designation among otherwise similar students. By controlling for a number of school level variables, they were able to dig down and differentiate children’s likelihood of designation based on some specific factors. For example, the likelihood of designation was higher in schools with more resources—such as smaller class sizes and a student population of relatively higher socioeconomic status—and in schools of choice. Additionally, findings suggested that children’s likelihood of designation may also be higher if they are distinctive relative to other students in their school along certain dimensions such as race or ELL status. In other words, two similar ELL students in different schools face a differing likelihood of special needs designation based on how many other ELLs are in their respective buildings. And those differences were not always predictable. While low achievers, black students, and ELLs were all more likely to be designated as special needs students in schools where they were distinctive in these traits from their peers, the opposite was true of Hispanic students.

Shifrer and Fish conclude that teachers and counselors may be interpreting similar “symptoms” differently depending on the context, and they may be responding to those symptoms differently as well. Singling out the “different” kids in a school or classroom for special needs designation is just as troubling as ignoring the real needs of students so as to avoid singling them out.

Recent news reports that too many students are being designated in some states and too few in others, along with ongoing stories of inadequate provision of services press home just how important it is that all the adults involved in special education get this right. Shifrer and Fish’s research indicates that the basis for designation—and thus for provision of services—is likely built on shaky ground.

SOURCE: Dara Shifrer and Rachel Fish. “Contextual Reliability in the Designation of Cognitive Health Conditions among U.S. Children,” Society and Mental Health (May 2019).

Jeff Murray is a lifelong resident of central Ohio. He previously worked at School Choice Ohio and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. He has two degrees from the Ohio State University. He lives in the Clintonville neighborhood with his wife and twin daughters. He is proud every day to support the Fordham mission to help make excellent education options more numerous and more readily available for families and…

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