Factors in the Identification Process in SPED

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, you will learn about the various factors, such as language, cultural, and gender differences, that impact the special education identification process.

Factors in the Identification Process in SPED

Imagine three students struggling with reading and writing. The students share similar achievement profiles and are ultimately recommended for special education testing. Unfortunately, two of the three are more likely to be identified as having a learning disability simply because of their language, culture, and gender.

How can these non-academic factors result in a special education identification? Let's take a closer look.

Language & Culture

Two factors that influence a student's likelihood of being identified as needing special education services are culture, often based on racial or ethnic background, and language. Children who are Hispanic, African American, or Native American/Alaskan Native are more likely to be placed in special education.

Cultural Learning Style

Often, this may be because their cultural learning style is different from that of non-diverse students. For example, children from diverse backgrounds may be less assertive in the classroom or less likely to question the teacher. Thus, their learning needs may be overlooked as their teacher responds to more vocal or competitive students from non-diverse backgrounds. This leads to teachers not seeing the student's learning or true achievement level and often referrals to special education.

Academic Language

Students who are English Language Learners or who have limited proficiency in English are at greater risk of being classified as having a learning disability. If general education teachers don't understand that language acquisition also includes academic language, the particular vocabulary of the classroom and learning, performance may suffer, leading to a lack of growth and referrals for special education testing.


The intelligence tests and other standardized assessments used to determine eligibility for special education can be biased. Such tests can skew in favor of those with higher English language ability, as well as a cultural awareness often associated with non-diverse, middle class households. This bias, coupled with the prevalence of the discrepancy model, which bases diagnosis of a learning disability on the gap between a child's achievement and her expected achievement, can lead to diverse students or those with limited English proficiency being over identified.


A child's gender can also impact placement in special education. There are twice as many males in special education as there are females. Male children are often identified as having special needs related to their vision, hearing and speech. Further, boys are more likely to be identified as having a reading or written expression learning disability or to require services for emotional or behavioral disorders, including autism and attention disorders.

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