Contrary to widespread concerns that minorities are disproportionately funneled into special education classrooms, a new study suggests that these kids’ special needs often go unnoticed.

When accounting for increased odds of low birth weight, lead exposure and other factors that put minorities at greater risk for disabilities, researchers say that special needs among these students are under identified by schools.

“The general limitation of the available studies is that they haven’t been able to correct for minority children’s unfortunate, but well-established, greater risk factor exposure to factors that themselves increase the risk for disability,” said Paul Morgan of Penn State University who led the study published online this week in the journal Educational Researcher.

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Researchers looked at federal data collected from families and teachers on a nationally-representative group of children who entered kindergarten in 1998 and were followed through eighth grade.

They found that black children were 58 percent less likely to be identified as having a learning disability compared with their white peers who had comparable academic abilities, behaviors and economic backgrounds. Similarly, the study found that black kids were 57 percent less likely to be flagged with intellectual impairments than white children.

Meanwhile, disabilities were also spotted less frequently in Hispanic children as compared to their white counterparts. The odds of a learning disability were 27 percent lower in Hispanic youth and such kids were 33 percent less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments, the study found.

“This underrepresentation may result from teachers, school psychologists and other education professionals responding differently to white, English-speaking children and their parents,” Morgan said. “Education professionals should be attentive to cultural and language barriers that may keep minority children with disabilities from being appropriately identified and treated, so that all children with disabilities, regardless of their race, ethnicity or language use, receive the help they need.”

The findings are in stark contrast with years of claims from both advocates and policymakers worried that minorities are disproportionately tracked into special education classrooms.

Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education, said that while he had not fully reviewed the research, he remains concerned by years of data suggesting that students from minority backgrounds are inappropriately placed in special education.

“In far too many places, kids of color are being over identified,” Yudin said. “We are determined to make sure that all students who need special education services are getting them, but there are students being identified who shouldn’t be.”

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