Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Identification and Misidentification of Children with Disabilities

Publication Date: November 2001

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Education



This report discusses issues related to the identification and misidentification of children with disabilities. Misidentification can result from failing to identify those with disabilities, from identifying children with disabilities they do not have, and from delaying identifying children with disabilities. Congress has been, and continues to be, concerned about problems of misidentification. These concerns have been reflected in provisions of special education legislation -- most notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- that seek to ensure that children with disabilities are identified and receive special education and related services and that children not be incorrectly identified. For example, Congress has included provisions in IDEA funding formulas to discourage states from attempting to increase their shares of federal funding by over-identifying students with disabilities.

Some disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairment, are relatively easy to recognize and are less susceptible to misidentification. The identification of other disabilities, for example learning disabilities, depend on more subjective measures and are more prone to misidentification. Students identified with these more "subjective" disabilities account for most of the school-age special education population.

The distribution of disabilities is not uniform in the school-age population. Students with speech and language impairments predominate in the early grades. Students with learning disabilities account for most students with disabilities beginning in the middle elementary grades and continuing into high school. As students with milder disabilities graduate or drop out of school, those with more severe disabilities account for most of the population, although at these ages (19-22) most individuals with disabilities are no longer part of the elementary and secondary school population.

Most of the concern about misidentification has centered on the perceived overidentification of African American students (especially African American males). While African Americans account for about 15% of the population age 6-21, they account for about 20% of students identified with disabilities. Although some portion of this higher rate might be explained by factors related to the occurrence of disabilities -- for example, greater poverty among African Americans -- such factors may not be the full explanation of the rates at which African American students are identified as mentally retarded (nearly 35% of all such students) and emotionally disturbed (more than 25% of these students). Other factors, such as teachers' subjective judgments, are likely to be involved.

There is disagreement on what should be done about identification problems. Some argue that IDEA provides ample tools to deal with these problems, and only better implementation and more rigorous enforcement of current law are necessary. Others argue that IDEA needs to be "reformed," for example, by requiring states or school districts to devise corrective plans if there is evidence of over-identification.