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February 5, 2003 | Volume 1 | Number 3
Disproportionate Identification of Students with Learning Disabilities

Disproportionate Identification of Students with Learning Disabilities

The Question

What is the relationship between identification of students as learning disabled (LD) and their sociodemographic characteristics such as poverty, gender, and ethnicity?

The Context

Previous studies have indicated that students may be disproportionately identified as learning disabled (LD) based on differences in poverty, gender, and ethnicity (that is, students in high poverty, males, and members of minority groups have historically been identified as LD at higher rates than their peers who are not impoverished, are females, or are Caucasian).

The Study

This study analyzed information from two surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. Data collected by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) was combined with data from the Common Core of Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), resulting in a data set of 4,151 school districts serving 24 million students.

Researchers examined nine sociodemographic variables, and checked for correlations between them and LD identification rates. Gender and ethnicity were then analyzed with LD rates and the nine variables. The variables were:

  • Student-teacher ratios.
  • Per-pupil expenditures.
  • Percentage of children defined as at risk.
  • Percentage of non-white students.
  • Percentage of limited English proficient (LEP) students.
  • Median housing values.
  • Median income for households with children.
  • Percentage of children in households below the poverty level.
  • Percentage of adults without a high school diploma.

As indicated by previous studies, both gender and ethnicity were strongly related to LD rates, with minorities more likely than whites to be defined as LD, and males more likely to be identified as LD than their female counterparts. The one exception was Asian Americans, who were less likely to be identified as LD when compared to whites, however, male Asian Americans were still more likely than their female counterparts to be labeled LD.

At the district level, the nine sociodemographic traits as a whole were strongly associated with LD identification rates, although the individual associations were less strong. When gender and ethnicity groups were combined with the sociodemographic traits the association was even stronger. Other interesting findings include a decrease in identification of LD as poverty increases for American Indian and white males, and a decrease in identification rates as the proportion of non-white students increases.

Who’s affected?

Students living in poverty, males, and members of minority groups.


This study looked at correlations between sociodemographic traits, gender, ethnicity, and rates of LD identification. Because it is a correlational study, it cannot tell us why the relationships exist. For example, while males are generally twice as likely as their female counterparts to be identified as LD, we don’t know why this is the case. Similarly, while the sociodemographic traits of communities correlated with LD identification, we don’t know if this is because, for instance, high poverty schools are less effective at educating their students, resulting in more identification, or if the physical conditions of living in poverty cause a genuine increased incidence of learning disabilities (differential susceptibility). Two theories regarding the causes of disproportionality have been offered: the current identification and assessment system may be faulty; or social and demographic influences may result in an unequal distribution of disabilities across groups.

The Bottom Line

There is a strong relationship between rates of LD identification and poverty, gender, ethnicity, and the sociodemographic traits of communities. Further research is needed to determine why these factors interact, and determine whether the relationships are due to bias in identification procedures, or actual differences in susceptibility to disability.

The Study

Coutinho, M. J., Oswald, D. P, & Best, A. M. (2002). The influence of sociodemographics and gender on the disproportionate identification of minority students as having learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 23(1). pp. 49–60.

Full text is available to subscribers of ProQuest ( or Remedial and Special Education (

Other Resources

U.S. Department of Education:
National Center for Education Statistics:
Office for Civil Rights:
Council for Exceptional Children:
National Association of State Directors of Special Education:
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education:


All comments regarding ReseachBrief should be sent to To speak directly with an ASCD staff member, please Contact Us.

Dan Laitsch serves as ASCD's consultant editor for ResearchBrief. Laitsch is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and is coeditor of the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership.