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Intersections of Accountability and Special Education: The Social Justice Implications of Policy and Practice

by Felicia Castro-Villarreal & Sharon L. Nichols - 2016

High-stakes testing accountability has wreaked havoc on America’s public schools. Since the passage of NCLB in 2001, virtually every public school student has experienced the pressures of preparing for, practicing, and taking standardized state exams, the results of which have had significant consequences for their schools, teachers, and themselves. These test-based pressures have altered educational practices in significant ways for all students, but especially for students with disabilities. The goal of this article is to briefly describe the educational climate for students with disabilities, focusing on emergent federal policies that have had the contradictory effect of expanding and narrowing learning opportunities for students. This article provides the backdrop for the volume by introducing the reader to the general characteristics of our special education population, discussing the past and current federal policies guiding their education, and offering implications for policy and practice.


High-stakes testing accountability has wreaked havoc on Americas educational system. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, virtually every public school student has experienced the pressures of preparing for, practicing, and taking standardized state exams, the results of which have had significant consequences for their schools, teachers, and themselves (Herman & Haertel, 2005). For over 15 years, these pervasive test-based pressures have fundamentally altered (in mostly negative ways) the way we educate our students (Ravitch, 2010). As eminent social scientist Donald Campbell warned a long time ago, The more any social indicator is used for decision making purposes, the more apt it is to corrupt and distort the very process it is intended to measure (Campbell, 1975, p. 35). Tragically, Campbells predictions came true, as we now know the use of tests for making significant decisions about teachers and their students has led to a narrower/reduced curriculum and watered down subject areas. It has pressured teachers to relate to their students as test scores instead of as learners, and has created conditions making cheating, manipulation, and gaming much more likely (Booher-Jennings, 2005; Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003; Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Orfield, & Kornhaber, 2001; Ryan, 2004).

The tragic irony of NCLB, the federal law that instigated the current state of affairs, is that its central purpose to help our most marginalized and vulnerable student populations actually created circumstances that failed them. In fact, research suggests that our poorer students, students of color, students for whom English is a second language, and students with disabilities suffered some of the more negative effects of high-stakes testing accountability under NCLB, including a greater likelihood of being retained, dropping out of school, pursuing technical or vocational tracks, and experiencing lowered academic expectations (Figlio & Getzler, 2006; Marchant & Paulson, 2005; Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004; Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). In spite of these negative outcomes, policymakers continued to embrace the use of standardized tests to hold teachers accountable for over a decade.

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and replacing NCLB. Partly in response to the growing outcry against the federally mandated use of standardized tests for holding teachers accountable, ESSA minimizes the importance of tests for evaluating teachers and returns control over educational policy to the states. This promising shift away from heavy-handed use of tests is a step in the right direction, but it is still unclear as to the residual effects of NCLB and to what degree tests will remain a part of our educational landscape or what ongoing role they will play (Wong, 2015). Even as the educational terrain shifts under the weight of ESSA, there remain unanswered questions from this past decade of high-stakes testing and how it has affected students and teachersespecially as it relates to our special education populations. Although we have some data to show how special education students learning experiences have been gamed in the pursuit of higher test scores (e.g., more students meeting special education eligibility for Specific Learning Disabilities and students curricula narrowed; Cole, 2006; Figlio & Getzler, 2006), there is much we dont know about the specific challenges, obstacles, and problems of delivering effective and individualized instruction for special education students when educators are under the weight and pressure of having to get students to pass tests (Ysseldyke et al., 2004).  

For example, one significant and ongoing challenge for special education teachers working under NCLB has been the tension between standardizing expectations and curriculum proficiency benchmarks for all students, while at the same time providing individualized instruction as required by students Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and as mandated under IDEA (Cole, 2006). For many special education teachers, the pressure to get students who cannot speak or who are learning to tie their shoes to pass a standardized test is an unreasonable burden. Consider the thoughts of one special education teacher:

The impact of tests, both on a local and state measure, have come hammering down on me and many of my Special Ed colleagues this year. To say that I am enraged/upset/saddened/taken back is an understatement. The amount of hours I put into teaching is insane. I leave my house at 5:30 every morning to make sure I can get a parking space and prep for the day. (FYI my day doesnt start until 8:20 according to my contract.) In my career (and this is every year), I am potty training, teaching self hygiene, teaching self regulation, executive functioning, how to SPEAK for Gods sake. I teach children how to hold a pencil, write their name, the fundamentals that they need and more. On top of that, I teach a ridiculous curriculum, mandated by NYS, to a self-contained class of what has been kindergarten through third graders, sometimes all in one class. I have taught class sizes from 12 to 17, when there were only supposed to be 12. This past year, my class was a mix of children with autism, children who are emotionally disturbed and un-medicated, children with speech and language impairments, and children who are learning disabled. In the time they were with me, these children made progress beyond your wildest dreams and that is because of me and my team, not some ridiculous curriculum.

According to my rating, my teaching was effective and the same went for my state measures. Where I apparently fail as a teacher is on my local measure. My children, as described above, were asked to take a writing exam in which they listened to and took notes on an informational text. From there they took their notes and were expected to write a paragraph or more relating to the topic. My children did as they were asked, to the best of their ability, when most came to me in the beginning unable to accurately write their name.

I am not sharing this to garner sympathy or cry poor me, but rather to expose what this profession has become and how discombobulated this system is. I also want others to know that they are not alone when it comes to these ridiculous score adjustments. (Anonymous, 2015, September 7)

But it isnt just the assessment and accountability provisions of NCLB that have burdened our special education teachers and students. The more recent set of amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, the federal law that governs special education services) and passed in 2004 (Individual with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, IDEIA) has also had a significant impact on special education services in our schools. Both NCLB and IDEIA outline a rigorous and detailed set of policies and procedures that pose significant challenges and confusion for educators who help our more vulnerable and academically and behaviorally at-risk populations (Ahearn, 2006; Thurlow & Quenemoen, 2011).

In the years since their passage, we have learned a lot about how onerous federal mandates such as NCLB and its successor, Race to the Top, have impacted teaching and learning for general education student populations. For one, there is no evidence that these heavy-handed approaches have improved learning or decreased the achievement gaps they were constructed to address (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2006, 2012; Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). On the contrary, there is evidence that these laws and those crafted specifically to target special education populations have had mixed effects (e.g., Mayrowetz, 2009; Thurlow & Quenemoen, 2011) or mostly negative effects. The latter include unreasonable demands and pressures, as well as overreliance on assessment results that are invalid (and especially questionable for culturally and linguistically diverse populations) representations of what students can and cannot do (McLaughlin, Malmgren, & Nolet, 2006; Pazey Vasquez Heilig, Cole, & Sumbera, 2015; Vannest, Mahadevan, Mason, & Temple-Harvey, 2009). What are missing are more studies that examine the intersection of these policies and how they really play out in practice. This volume is a step toward filling that gap as authors examine how the policies and mandates of NCLB and/or IDEIA unfold for special education teachers and students.


In this article, we set the stage for these ensuing discussions. We start by describing who our special education students are and how their needs vary. The special education population has grown and diversified significantly over time as a result of two trends: minority and at-risk population growth, and changes in our tools for assessing and diagnosing learning disabilities. In the next section, we briefly trace the succession of laws that govern how we serve this ever-changing population. Against the backdrop of demographic information and policy efforts, we then turn our attention to some of the more pressing challenges that have emerged as a result of these collective trends. Increasingly aggressive, intrusive, and monolithic federal mandates have collided with an increasingly diverse student body, making the conditions for educating them more complex, confusing, and difficult. This situation is made more onerous with inadequate funding and fewer resources being provided, combined with mandates for a greater number and complexity of services (Yell, Katsiyannis, & Bradley, 2011). This state of affairs poses many challenges for both special education and general education teachers (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2003). We conclude with a few comments and thoughts regarding the future of special education policy and practice.


In the early part of the 20th century, approximately 6% of students received special education services in public schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Over time, and as awareness of and advocacy for mental health, developmental disabilities, and cognitive challenges grew, an increasingly larger proportion of students were identified and subsequently served by special education programs and services. Today, it is estimated that the number of students receiving special education services has risen to over 13% of all public school students (or about 6.4 million) (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

Our special education students include those with physical challenges (deaf, blind, and/or orthopedic visual, speech or language impairment) and those with cognitive challenges (e.g., intellectual disability, learning disability), or some combination of two or more of these.1 As of 2013, the majority of students who receive special education services (35%) meet criteria for a Specific Learning Disability. SLD students are defined as those who show unexpected underachievement in the areas of math, reading, or writing, despite showing overall average cognitive ability as measured by a culturally and linguistically appropriate and technically sound measure of IQ. The remaining students receive special education services for speech or language impairments (21%), other health impairments (12%), autism (AU, 8%), intellectual disability (i.e., student has significantly impaired intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior deficits, ID, 7%), or emotional disturbance (ED, 6%). Interestingly, while the number of students who qualify for special education services for ID and ED has declined over time (from about 11% to 7% and 8.5% to 6%, respectively), the number of students receiving services for autism has increased dramatically from 1% to 8% between 1991 and 2013 (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). The number of students with SLD, on the other hand, has remained the highest over time with rates as high as 50% in 1991.


U.S. schools are becoming increasingly diverse with Black and Hispanic students composing 40%, followed by Asian/Pacific Islanders at 5%, and 3% of students identifying as two or more races (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). More and more of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a reported 21% of school-aged children living in poverty (U.S. Department of Education, 2015) and more of our students being English language learners (ELLs). As of 2013, an estimated 4.4 million students (9.2%) in the United States are ELLs, representing an increase from 4.1 million (8.7%) in 2002 and a 40% increase since the early 1900s (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Although a majority of ELLs speak Spanish (69%) and are of Hispanic or Latino descent (U.S. Department of Education, 2015), the remaining 31% of ELLs come to school speaking as many as 400 different languages (Kindler, 2002; Rhodes, Ochoa, & Ortiz, 2005).

Students with disabilities largely reflect these broader patterns; however, challenges associated with accurately determining disability status and identifying ELLs raise questions regarding these estimates. For example, data suggest minority students are disproportionately represented in special education (Harry & Klingner, 2014; Sullivan, 2011). The strong correlation between poverty and minority status suggests that students from lower socio-economic strata might also be overrepresented; however, it appears as if minority status predicts disability even when poverty is controlled (e.g., Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002; Zhang, Katsiyannis, Ju, & Roberts, 2014). As a result, it is unclear whether disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students are in special education, or if minority status independent of poverty status is a more accurate predictor. Nonetheless, the high co-occurrence of poverty and minority status underscores minority students cumulative risk for receiving special education services. With respect to language, it is exceedingly difficult to assess how many special education students are also ELLs because of the inherent challenges associated with disentangling learning difficulties from language difficulties and nuances in identification and reporting. Recent data suggest that 9% of ELLs compared to 13% of non-ELLs are likely to be identified for special education (Sullivan, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

When programming and supports are so diverse it becomes difficult to disentangle learning challenges due to inadequate instruction or lack of language proficiency versus some underlying learning disability. Because language is often a requirement for ascertaining a students academic understanding, when students have limited English proficiency, it is difficult to discern whether errors are due to language difference or disability (Rhodes et al., 2005). These challenges could be remedied with valid and reliable instruments developed and administered in the students first language; however, such measures are scarce, as is the number of professionals proficient and fluent enough to administer the tests (Rhodes et al., 2005). This difference is significant enough to raise flags regarding whether ELL students are being under identified as a result of stigma, stereotype threat, referral bias, or inadequate measures that may impact how identification and diagnostic procedures are followed.

The trends briefly described above tell two important stories. First, students with disabilities are a large and increasingly diverse group. They have physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges, are culturally and linguistically diverse, and come from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Second, most of these diverse students with disabilities struggle with learning challenges. This rich diversity of students who mostly struggle with academic and learning challenges creates a difficult state of affairs for educators who are required to comply with a multitude of complex national and state laws. It is the conflict between uniform requirements and expectations and individualized education programming that has created a confusing and unrealistic context for general and special education providers.


Our rapidly diversifying student body has been met by an escalating set of federal policies aimed at ensuring all students receive a high-quality education. The primary thrust of these policy efforts initially centered on ensuring student access to high-quality learning opportunities (Coleman, 1966). However, in the past 50 years, we saw a series of federal policies that grew more intrusive and more focused on educational outcomes (e.g., NCLB). Next, we briefly trace this history to provide some context for how our policies have evolved to try to meet the needs of our special education populations.


Our modern-day special education policies and practices originated in New York City in 1900, when classroom teacher Elizabeth Farrell, distraught by the neglect of the citys growing poor, minority, and immigrant population, initiated a program that would serve any and all students who were behind or deemed unable to keep pace with their peers due to physical, emotional, or intellectual challenges (Gerber, 2011; Kode, 2002). In creating ungraded classes within New York City public schools, Farrell essentially started what now might be considered special pull out programs/classrooms for students with disabilities. This model of keeping students in their schools and integrated with their normal peers, but academically served in special ungraded classrooms, grew quickly in popularity and fueled the national special education movement. As with any large-scale social movement, implementation was uneven. A mixture of both fear and hope threaded throughout the social, cultural, and political strife of the first half of the 20th century, both encouraging and slowing down the special education movement (Kauffman, 1981; Kauffman & Landrum, 2006). Hope in the growing public school movement as the cultural institution that would usher in new generations of modernity and economic vitality mixed with fear of the growing immigration population and anyone deemed different, resulting in a national public school system that at times was open and at times was rejecting of students with disabilities.  

By mid century, this all began to change as a few landmark supreme court cases challenging separate but equal educational opportunities and the notion of free and open access gave way to a series of federal laws that successively expanded the focus on students with disabilities. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated schools in 1954 challenged notions of separate but equal, a logic that was also used to raise questions about equitable learning opportunities for students with disabilitiessomething that vocal parent groups were clamoring for but that schools were under no legal mandate to address (Itkonen, 2009). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequently the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 continued to raise questions about equity and opportunity, and challenged the public to acknowledge the vast social, cultural, and financial schisms that defined a rapidly growing and diversifying student population. The Education of the Handicapped Act, passed in 1970, offered grants to higher institutions to train teachers to work with students with disabilities, and was the very first federal law to exclusively focus on special education students. This paved the way for Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975 that was the first major federal effort to ensure a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities (Yell et al., 2011, p. 62). EAHCA was a grants program available to states that passed laws that showed they were educating students with disabilities according to the acts principles. These included that states (a) ensure that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education, (b) protect the rights of students and their parents, and (c) assist states and localities in their efforts to provide such services (Yell et al., 2011, p. 63).

There have been many changes (both major and minor) to EAHCA since its inception. Some of the more significant include an amendment in 1990 that changed the name of the law to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The changes stipulated in this particular amendment included that students with autism and traumatic brain injury were identified as a separate category, and that a plan for transition was required to be included on every students IEP by the time he or she turned age 16 (Yell et al., 2011, p. 63). Subsequent amendments were increasingly intrusive, rigorous, and detailed. For example, the next amendment of IDEA, which came in 1997, added several mandates including that IEP reports contain measurable annual goals and that parents be regularly informed of their childs progress. IDEA 1997 also required that if students did not attain their goals, the IEP had to be revised and that the IEP planning had to allow students to advance appropriately. IDEA 1997 also included several rules and provisions for how students with disabilities would be disciplineda topic that has been controversial and confusing (Hale et al., 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

The next and perhaps most significant amendment of IDEA came on the heels of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 when in 2004 then President Bush signed PL 108-446  (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, IDEIA) into law. The goal of IDEIA was to increase the quality of special education programs for students in special education by increasing accountability for results (Yell et al., 2011, p. 64). Some of the most significant changes to the original law included the requirement that a students IEP be based on peer reviewed research where applicable. Further, the 2004 version of the law shifted how students eligibility for special education services was defined: Wait to fail models of assessment and diagnosis were replaced with early identification and remediation models where students who are at risk for academic or behavioral problems are flagged immediately and provided with research-based services and instruction (e.g., Response to Intervention, RTI).


IDEIA (2004) ushered in a new era of oversight and control over the ways in which special education students, and those at risk of being identified for special education, were educated. This shift was marked by three significant changes in the law that created challenging implementation conditions for educators and special education service providers. First, practitioners serving special education students were required to use research based instructional practices where possible. Second, eligibility requirements and criteria for special education services were significantly altered (1. Parents could request an evaluation, 2. Doing poorly in class could not be used as a basis for eligibility, and 3. Severe discrepancy identification models were no longer required). Third, the law added something referred to as early intervening services (EIS) that dictated the ways in which funds could be allocated with regard to general education students who may be at academic or behavioral risk for special education services (Yell et al., 2011, p. 65). Collectively, these amendments mandated sweeping pedagogical, philosophical, and practical changes that were difficult to understand and even more difficult to implement. Consequently, implementation has been widely uneven (Berkeley, Bender, Peaster, & Saunders, 2009) and effects difficult to gauge (OConnor & Sanchez, 2011) or nonexistent (Balu et al., 2015).  

The push for access under IDEA and IDEIA means that more students are receiving their education in general education classrooms with typically developing peers. Ninety-five percent of students who qualify to receive special education services attend regular public schools. Of these students served under IDEA, the percentage of those who receive most of their education (greater than 80%) in the general education classroom setting has nearly doubled since 1990 from 33% to 61% in 2013 (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Students with speech and language delays and students with specific learning disabilities were most likely to receive the majority of their education in the general education setting, whereas students receiving services for multiple disabilities and/or intellectual disability were primarily educated in more exclusive settings (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). These data indicate that the vast majority of students with disabilities attend regular public schools and are increasingly being educated in the general education classroom with typically developing peers.

Although greater inclusion of special education students within and among general education classrooms is undoubtedly a positive shift from decades past (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2011), the passage of laws that in effect standardized educational expectations for all students, including those whose academic and learning needs varied widely, created burdensome demands on education providers. These shifts in the law, and especially the change in how eligibility is determined and how services must be provided, have created stressful and confusing conditions for many educators.

NCLB: Standards-Based Reform and High-Stakes Testing

NCLB set in motion an educational context that changed the game for students with disabilities. Under NCLB, all students (except the lower 1%3% with the most significant cognitive disabilities) were required to take and pass standardized tests. There are benefits to including students with disabilities in statewide testing, such as closer focus on IEP development and alignment with state standards, increased commitment to instruction in the general education classroom to the extent appropriate, and renewed focus on the shared responsibility of serving students with special needs (Furney, Hasazi, Clark/Keefe, & Hartnett, 2003; Skiba et al., 2008). Nonetheless, there are also many negatives associated with this policy. Some of these negative consequences are as obvious as the association between high-stakes testing pressures and the rise in the number of students referred and identified for special education services (Furney et al., 2003; Harry & Klinger, 2014; U.S. Department of Education, 2015). A related trend is the correlation between high-stakes testing and more restrictive placement (Furney et al., 2003; Harry & Klinger, 2014; U.S. Department of Education, 2015). And there are numerous examples of the ways in which special education students are negatively treated, isolated, and segregated as a result of the stigma associated with their lower standardized test scores (Collins & Valente, 2010; McDermott, Goldman, & Varenne, 2006; Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Ravitch, 2010).

Other examples are less obvious but equally problematic. For example, the requirement that all special education students pass the same test as their non-disabled peers creates questions about equitable access to the tests content. When state tests are developed, the assumption is that all students are exposed to the same content and instruction. Recent reports suggest this is definitely not the case (Elliott, 2015). Estimates suggest that although 60% of special education students spend a majority (80%) of their day in general education classrooms, the remaining 40% of students with disabilities spend significantly less. These students spend varying amounts of time segregated from the general education curriculum and immersed in remedial instruction and activities (Elliot, 2015). Framed another way, general education students receive instruction on about 81% of the content represented on state tests, which means that for students with disabilities to have equitable opportunity to learn, they would need at least 30 to 40 more days of instruction (Elliot, 2015).

Another challenge with including students with disabilities in state testing is the confusion over test accommodations and subjective and variable access to these accommodations. Test accommodations are often haphazardly applied and inconsistently accessible (Brinckerhoff & Banerjee, 2007; Elliot, 2015). Although discourse on accommodations has improved and advances in universal design have helped to level the playing field for students with disabilities, we are still far from creating the access necessary to ensure we are measuring ability and not disability (Brinckerhoff & Banerjee, 2007; Elliott, 2015). When accommodations are designed to improve the measurement of ability and not disability, access to appropriate accommodations, or lack thereof, can be problematic for those interpreting test performance, and detrimental to those who require them.

IDEIA: Response to Intervention

One of the more significant implementation features of IDEIA is in special education eligibility determination for specific learning disabilities. Historically, evaluators used an IQ-achievement discrepancy formula to determine SLD eligibility. With this model, evaluators examined the difference between cognitive ability (IQ) and achievement performance, and if the gap was large enough (a standard deviation or greater) the child met criteria as a student with an SLD. This method however, was wrought with many flaws, including poor reliability and validity and no theoretical underpinnings (Fuchs & Vaughn, 2005; Hale et al., 2010). In addition, many criticized this approach as wait to fail, since it often took a long time of chronic failure to establish a large enough gap to constitute eligibility. Under IDEIA, this method is no longer required. Instead, educators have the option of enacting a program of research-based instructional services as soon as learning challenges are detected and students are considered at risk by some predetermined criteria. Eligibility for special education services for students with learning disabilities is subsequently determined in part by how these at-risk students respond (i.e., RTI) to research-based instruction and intervention. Within RTI frameworks, students who fail to respond (i.e., inadequate growth and level change) to tiered and research-based supports within a specified time frame progress through to formal special education referral processes. Currently, 14 states allow SLD identification by RTI only, while some states follow a hybrid model and all states permit the use of RTI in SLD identification (Swanson, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Collectively, it is estimated that over 70% of schools across the country incorporate RTI in their classrooms (Swanson, 2008).

RTI (also known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, MTSS) is an instructional framework delivered as a continuum of three tiers of increasing intensity of support designed to match student need. Tier I incorporates universal benchmark testing or screening into a research-based general education core curriculum. When research-based approaches are in place, most students (80%) should thrive in the general education setting. A minority of students (15%) identified as at-risk through Tier I screening are provided with supplemental research-based instruction and more frequent progress monitoring at Tier II. Tier III supports are reserved for the smallest minority of students (5%) who fail to show adequate response to instruction at Tiers I and II, and usually involve more individualized instruction (individuals or groups of two to three students) and even more frequent progress monitoring. Students who make progress and respond to intervention require less and less supplemental instruction over time, whereas students who fail to respond or show inadequate level change matriculate through to formal special education referral processes (Hale et al., 2010).   

A central goal of RTI/MTSS frameworks is prevention of future problems via universal screening of all students academic, behavioral, and social/emotional needs. This approach is similar to well child visits within public health models and is considered central to an effective RTI/MTSS framework (Fuchs & Vaughn, 2005; Hale et al., 2010). Screening occurs a minimum of three times a year to provide a baseline academic temperature reading that is used to flag at-risk learners and to devise data-driven intervention strategies. These baseline measures focus on academic, social, and behavioral indicators, yielding a holistic picture of the individual students strengths and weakness in reference to both peer performance and the quality of instruction. In this regard, RTI/MTSS considers the ecology of students learning experiences rather than solely focusing on academic deficits within the child (Harris-Murri et al., 2006). RTI/MTSS is an alternative educational service delivery model that is qualitatively different from educational service delivery of years past, which explains both the promise and the problems (Fuchs & Vaughn, 2005; Hale et al., 2010).

There is a growing literature base that demonstrates RTIs promise. One area of positive effects has to do with more accurate referral and placement decisions. For example, some research has found that RTI/MTSS frameworks lead to fewer and more appropriate (i.e., the proportion of special education referrals to meet special education eligibility criteria) referrals to special education (Samuels, 2011; Scammacca et al., 2007; VanDerHeyden, Witt, & Gilbertson, 2007). There is also mounting evidence that small-group reading interventions delivered to students in RTI models result in improved reading skills for students at risk for reading failure (Gersten et al., 2009). For example, some have reported on the benefits of RTI Tier II literacy instruction for Tier I non-responders (Gilbert et al., 2013; Gunn, Smolkowski, & Ary, 2000; Vaughn et al., 2010). Similarly, a meta-analysis revealed reading gains in schools with RTI models (Gersten et al., 2009; Scammacca et al., 2007). Though much of the research on RTI for literacy is positive, many note these studies are mostly small-group designs and tightly controlled interventions raising questions concerning external validity, generalizability, and feasibility.  

RTI has also shown promise for differentiating responders from non-responders or students who eventually meet criteria for special education. In one study, researchers identified three groups (always responsive, sometimes responsive, and nonresponsive) of students in RTI models to be reliably different on several literacy measures (Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2006). Similarly, other research has shown RTIs promise for distinguishing responders from non-responders and subsequent special education identification (Scammacca et al., 2007; Velluntino, Scanlon, Small, & Fanuele, 2006; Vellutino, Scanlon, Zhang, & Schatschneider, 2008). In tightly controlled studies and especially those conducted in schools with strong universityschool partnerships, RTI has shown promise for addressing learning and behavior problems as soon as problems surface, matching instruction with need, and promoting equity.

In spite of primarily promising outcomes, there are data showing RTI has some problems. For example, findings from a large national study suggest that students who qualified to receive interventions actually performed worse when compared to students not receiving Tier II reading interventions (Balu et al., 2015). The authors of the study and RTI experts attribute their results in part to lack of fidelity of implementation and the logistical difficulties involved in implementing RTI/MTSS as intended (Balu et al., 2015; Werts, Carpenter, & Fewell, 2014). Similarly, other research points to impracticality, lack of resources, overwhelming paperwork requirements, and overall discontent with the tedious process from those at the front lines as major impediments to progress and promise (Balu et al., 2015; Castro-Villarreal, Rodriguez, & Moore, 2014). Along these same lines, a meta-analysis showed no decrease in the difference (i.e., achievement gap) between groups of responders and non-responders after exposure to RTI Tier II intervention (Tran, Sanchez, Arellano, & Swanson, 2011). However, it is important to note that most would expect the difference between responders and non-responders to persist as an indication of true disability (those likely to require special education) versus those in need of supplemental and remedial instruction to be brought up to speed. Thus, although some research suggests little to no improvement on various outcomes related to RTI (findings to which critics have responded by labeling RTI as a watch them fail approach), most criticism revolves around the inability to employ RTI as designed due to insufficient resources and conflicting laws and policy that make it difficult to differentiate and individually tailor instruction to meet all students needs.

Although the tenets and structures of RTI are theoretically sound (Fuchs & Vaughn, 2005; Hale et al., 2010), it seems as if proper implementation is unrealistic and unattainable in the current policy context. RTI models, as a way to address students learning challenges, hold a great deal of promise for more properly identifying learning challenges and for offering a system of interventions that is tailored to the specific needs of each student. However, the absence of proper training and resource support suggests that RTI may just be another burdensome mandate that is guaranteed to cause more problems than it can address.


A wealth of data suggest that for over three decades, minority students have been disproportionately represented among special education populations (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, & Ortiz, 2010; Harry & Klingner, 2014; Skiba et al., 2008; Sullivan, 2011; Sullivan & Bal, 2013; Zhang et al., 2014). Disproportionality is gauged by the extent to which a group is over or under represented in a category compared to its proportion in the overall school population (Zhang et al., 2014, p. 119; see also Donovan & Cross, 2002). One set of estimates suggest that although minority students make up approximately 43% of the overall school population, they make up a greater percentage of students diagnosed with intellectual disabilities (51%) and specific learning disabilities (45%), and are about evenly represented with regard to emotional/behavioral disabilities (43%). When disaggregated by race, data suggest that of all students with disabilities, most are Native American (15%) followed by Black (15%), White (13%), Hispanic (12%), and Asian (6%) (U.S. Department of Education, 2015; Zhang et al., 2014).

Disproportionality estimates vary across disability category, time, and relative representativeness. For example, historically, culturally and linguistically diverse students have been disproportionately overrepresented in high-incidence disability categories such as ID, ED, SLI, and SLD (Sullivan, 2011; Sullivan & Bal, 2013; Zhang et al., 2014). More recent estimates, however, show Hispanic students who are also ELLs to be underrepresented in the area of SLD (12%) but overrepresented in ID (Sullivan, 2011). Interestingly, these estimates change over time for ELLs as they have been shown to be under-identified for SLD in the primary grades followed by over-identification in the secondary grades (Sullivan, 2011). This shift over time has been attributed to several factors, including a reluctance to identify learning disability that may be the result of typical language acquisition processes rather than cognitive deficits. Similarly, Black students, although overrepresented in special education generally, show significantly elevated rates of ED and ID, with estimates twice that of the national average (Sullivan, 2011; Sullivan & Bal, 2013). As another example, while Asian Americans are under-identified for special education services generally, they are disproportionately underrepresented for SLD (23%, compared to 34% of all students who receive special education services), and overrepresented for AU (18%, compared to 8% of all students who receive special education services) (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

There are also data showing disproportionate trends when it comes to placement decisions and discipline. That is, ethnic group membership has been found to affect the probability of being placed in more restrictive settings (placement) and being subjected to harsher disciplinary punishment (discipline/consequences) (Harris-Murri et al., 2006; Sullivan, 2011). To illustrate, Black males who receive special education services are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their White counterparts. Data also show Black males receive more discipline referrals than others receiving special education services (Sullivan, 2011). As another example, Latino students who qualify for special education services are twice as likely to receive services in restrictive/pull-out settings. In fact, 36% of Latino students with specific learning disabilities spend the majority of their day in restrictive/pull-out settings compared to the estimated 20% of all students with disabilities (Sullivan, 2011).

Taken together, these data suggest the question of disproportionality is controversial on several fronts. First, data vary at the national, state, and district levels. Some records reveal clear patterns of disproportionality in special education and some suggest there is no problem (e.g., Balu et al., 2015). An added layer of confusion rests with data that show minorities in some disability categories are overrepresented (e.g., Sullivan & Bal, 2013) compared to data that suggest that in some cases they are underrepresented (Morgan, Staff, Hillemeier, Farkas, & Maczuga, 2013; Shifrer, Muller, & Callahan, 2011; Sullivan, 2011; Zhang et al., 2014). Where disproportionality exists, in what direction, and for whom become critical questions that are difficult to unpack with consistency. It is not surprising that research is inconsistent given the challenges of tracking and identifying special education populations, as well as the varying methodological and statistical approaches used to study these trends. Still, over 40 years of special education research suggests disproportionality persists, yet varies from state to state and district to district. The consequences of disproportionality, namely the negative outcomes associated with inappropriate placement, access to the general education curriculum, and harsher disciplinary punishment, suggest educators must be mindful of their own referral practices and the ways in which minority students are identified, labeled, and treated.

A second area of debate rests with the multitude of factors that contribute to disproportionality, making it exceedingly difficult and nuanced to disentangle and therefore fix. Factors such as test bias, poverty, special education processes, inequity in general education, issues of behavioral management, cultural mismatch and reproduction (Zhang et al., 2014, p. 119) are just a few of the possible features of educational systems that may contribute to the problem. Addressing disproportionality in special education has long been discussed, and methods for addressing it continue to evolve to include better teaching, improved referral processes, greater reliance on data and valid RTI decision-making, and philosophical changes to how we view learning problems (Harris-Murri et al., 2006).


The past century has seen a tremendous amount of change in education. The students we serve are more diverse than ever before. In this article, we reviewed some of what we know about the implementation of federal policies and how it has served our increasingly diverse special education student populations. The remainder of this volume examines more closely some of the specific intersections of policy and practice for this population.


Our culturally and linguistically diverse students have a right to equitable learning opportunities. This is especially true for students who are our most vulnerable and for whom learning and achieving may not come so readily. Schools are institutions that have the greatest promise for leveling the playing field for all students, and yet an examination of our policies suggests that we are not keeping that promise. Mandating that all students be educated in the least restrictive environment appropriate but simultaneously demanding monolithic outcomes has been a recipe for disaster for our special education teachers and students. Students are seen as test scores often tied to severe consequences; therefore, these likely low scorers are also seen as liabilities (Pazey et al., 2015). Sadly, students with learning challenges are set up for failure under these onerous mandates.

These problems are exacerbated for minority students who are subject to under- and/or over-representation in various disability categories, raising serious questions about the social justice implications of these ongoing special education policies and practices. For example, the current ways in which Black populations are treated, as exhibited by the recent examples of police violence against young Black men, may take root in early elementary school, where their behavior is disproportionately perceived as disruptive and bad (see Tefera & Kramarczuk, this volume, and Waitoller & Pazey, this volume). Another area of concern is disciplinary disproportionality. When the preponderance of data continue to show minority groups as overrepresented in special education, then we know they are also more likely to be relegated to more restrictive placement and subjected to harsher disciplinary consequences, which in and of itself is also associated with long-term negative outcomes. The push and pull between individualization and uniform expectations is overwhelming and can only be remedied through changes in how we conceptualize student learning and academic needs and training, in order to improve how we address the diversity of these learning needs.

IDEIA completely shifted educational terrain for general education and special education students. As noted, RTI models hold both promises and challenges in moving forward for educators and students alike. Data suggest RTI practices are confusing, complex, and difficult to implement, yet the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings consistent with public health models of prevention have proven efficacious if implemented with fidelity. Based on the growing literature base that shows RTIs effectiveness and the success of public health prevention models, we suggest we keep it, fund it better, and better train service providers to support our teachers who are overburdened. The multiple layers and ecological focus of RTI is believed to be especially beneficial for historically marginalized and segregated groups. To negotiate and leverage the rapid changes in educational policy and student demographics and needs, we must invest in university/preservice training for those implementing changes. We must continue to collaborate on and coordinate services to maximize student outcomes, better support teachers (Castro-Villarreal, Villarreal, & Sullivan, 2016; Zambrano, Castro-Villarreal, & Sullivan, 2012, and reinvent schools as a one-stop shop for coordinated care for student learning.  


1. There are 13 specific disability categories covered under federal law: (a) Autism, (b) Deaf-Blindness, (c) Deafness, (d) Developmental Delay, (e) Emotional Disturbance, (f) Hearing Impairment, (g) Intellectual Disability, (h) Multiple Disabilities, (i) Orthopedic Impairments, (j) Specific Learning Disability, (k) Speech or Language Impairment, (l) Traumatic Brain Injury, and (m) Visual Impairment (IDEA, 2004).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 14, 2016, p. 1-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21540, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:55:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Felicia Castro-Villarreal
    University of Texas at San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    FELICIA CASTRO-VILLARREAL is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology. Her current work focuses on teacher consultation in culturally and linguistically diverse multi-tiered systems of support and intervention programming for students with learning, behavioral, and socio-emotional needs.
  • Sharon Nichols
    University of Texas at San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    SHARON L. NICHOLS is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is coauthor of Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (with D. C. Berliner, Harvard Education Press, 2007). Her current work focuses on the impact of test-based accountability on teachers, their instructional practices, and adolescent motivation and development.
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