Background/Context: The overrepresentation of some minority groups in special education in the United States raises concerns about racial inequality and stratification within schools. While many actors and mechanisms within the school system may contribute to racial disparities in special education, the role of teachers is particularly important given that teachers are often the first ones to refer students for services. Previous studies examining biases in teacher perception of student disability have used simulations and vignettes that lack information on how teachers may perceive their own students.
Purpose of the Study: This study examined whether teachers disproportionately perceive minority students as having a disability based on survey information from teachers about their students. The study provides additional insight into teacher perception of student disability by accounting for student background, teacher traits, and school characteristics.
Research Design: The study used data on a nationally representative sample of high school sophomores from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002). The dataset included surveys that asked teachers about their students, including whether they perceived them to have a disability. Logistic regression models were used to model the relationship between teacher perception of student disability and student race, controlling for background factors relevant to identification for a disability.
Results: The findings show that while teachers were more likely to perceive Black, Hispanic, and Native American students as having a disability compared to White students, controlling for individual background characteristics and school contextual factors often resulted in underidentification. The exception is Asian Americans, who were consistently less likely to be perceived to have a disability.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Since teachers were less likely to perceive certain racial minority students as having a disability when accounting for student background characteristics, the finding provides a different perspective on how teachers may contribute to disproportionality in special education. The results also raise concerns about whether racial minority students are appropriately identified for services, especially Asian Americans who were consistently less likely to be perceived to have a disability, even when their achievement and behavior were similar to those of other students. Policies and practices should focus on using culturally and linguistically appropriate methods to identify students who may have disabilities.