The disproportionality of Latinx students in special education
The growing need to build relationships
By Paul Luelmo and Dustin Bindreiff | January | February 2021
In 1970, Diana was a Mexican American student in Soledad School District, California. Her primary language was Spanish, and she experienced academic difficulties. She was given an IQ test in English and after her poor performance on the test, she was placed in a special education classroom. She was labeled “Educable Mentally Retarded” (an abandoned term for what is now identified as intellectual disability). The placement of Diana and eight other students in a similar situation resulted in a class-action lawsuit titled Diana v. State Board of Education. The court found the IQ test to be not just linguistically biased, but also culturally biased. The ruling of the court was to re-assess the students in their primary language or using a nonverbal language test. When allowed to take the IQ test in Spanish, Mexican American students gained an average of 15 IQ points or the equivalent of one standard deviation. These “gains” were enough to get a student out of the below-average performance range often indicative of an intellectual disability (Sherwood, 2020). Moving forward to the year 2020, current data on significant disproportionality in special education suggests that a similar story to that of Diana might be repeating in California.
Hispanic students or Latinx, the most appropriate and gender-neutral version of Latino/Hispanic, is the largest ethnic group in California. Latinx students comprise students from a Latin American background and also from diverse racial and linguistic backgrounds. Hence, the term Latinx is not a racial category nor a linguistic category. The term “Latinx” highlights a background from a Latin-American geographical area (e.g., Mexico, Colombia, the Caribbean, Central America, etc.). Latinx students are Asian, Black, White and/or Indigenous/American Indian. This creates a distinctive nonracial ethnic group weaved together in a tapestry of European colonial history, Indigenous roots, and the Spanish language. Given the limitations of the social construct of “Hispanic/Latinx” it would be wise to take any generalizations for this group of students with a grain of salt. Generalizations made using the Latinx or Hispanic labels are many (both positive and negative), but in this paper, we focus on one issue of equity for this group of students: disproportionality in special education.
Disproportionality in special education is defined as the under/over representation of racial/ethnic groups in special education (Cruz & Rodl, 2018). In California, the most diverse state in the nation, Latinx students represent more than half of the public school system population (54 percent). It should be noted that many Latinx students, but not all, are also considered English Learners. In California, 81 percent of English Learners speak Spanish at home. Notably, during the 2018-2019 school year, a total of 61 Local Educational Agencies were found significantly disproportionate (i.e., at least three years in a row) for Latinx students in special education. The majority of these LEAs were found significantly disproportionate in the area of Specific Learning Disability for Latinx students (CDE, 2020). Moreover, LEAs significantly disproportionate for Latinx students represented the second-highest number of districts identified as having significant disproportionality in the 2018-2019 school year, after districts with disproportionality for African American students.
Root causes of significant disproportionality for Latinx students
The convergence of language, culture and academic ability results in complex possible root causes of disproportionality for Latinx students. Latinx students have become a minority-majority of students in California. One must consider the cultural experiences of Latinx students and the challenges associated with language acquisition for Latinx students who are learning English. To reduce disproportionality and systemic inequities in special education and as part of the State Performance Plan Technical Assistance Project funded in part by CDE, we work with LEAs to gather data to identify possible root causes of disproportionality. Importantly, the SPP-TAP works with districts to design plans and implement initiatives to tackle the identified root causes using quantitative and qualitative data. As part of the SPP-TAP work, we have found some emerging root causes across districts and geographical areas in California. The following are some examples of these root causes followed by recommendations on how to address each of them.
Pre-referral process and data collection. There seem to be emerging trends in terms of areas of need for pre-referral processes (i.e., before a special education assessment) of children that might disproportionately affect Latinx children. One of these common trends is the need for consistent, culturally sensitive/culturally sustaining multi-tiered systems of support. As one administrator puts it: “If a student struggles in class, special education is the next thing.” This is particularly important for Latinx students who are English Learners, who may need specific strategies and pre-assessment tools to get at the nuanced intersection of language and culture. As one Speech and Language Therapist told us: “English Language Learners are sometimes assessed for special education because they do not speak English.” As a result, examining the complex interaction of language acquisition, culture and language may help mitigate disproportionality in special education. While not all Latinx students speak Spanish or are English Learners, it can be argued that the Spanish language background is one of the most distinctive characteristics of this student population. Research is clear that all students working to learn English can face unique challenges in schools (California Department of Education, 2020). In California, 81 percent of the 1.1 million English Language Learners identify Spanish as their primary language (CDE, 2020). The need to improve the achievement of English Learners as well as the achievement of students with disabilities have been highlighted as priorities in the Local Control Accountability Plan. Analysis of 2019-2020 data suggests there may be a connection between students struggling to learn English and disabilities. Of the nearly 450,000 sixth through 12th grade students receiving EL instruction, more 45 percent are designated Long-Term English Learners. After six years of instruction these students are making minimal progress toward English proficiency (CDE, 2020). In short, these students are 279 percent more likely to be identified as disabled than the general student population. In total, one out of every three students of the 204,000 LTEL students in California are identified as having a disability. Education leaders may want to examine their LTEL data and consider how a lack of progress toward English Language proficiency may contribute to the overrepresentation of Latinx students in special education.
Deficit-oriented perspectives. While most teachers and staff deeply care about their students, there still exists a pervasive deficit-oriented perspective about Latinx students. Given the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from politics and some media outlets, and considering that many Latinx students have an immigrant-origin background, this is hardly a surprise. As one teacher put it: “It is common for educators to kind of lower their expectations of students based on different backgrounds and cultures,” or comments like: “Families just don’t care.” These viewpoints do not help in serving Latinx children in an equity-minded way. Instead, an equity-minded approach would be inquisitive in nature, as one special education told us: “Let’s figure out all the reasons why they struggle and address those reasons.” There is an urgent need for this equity-minded perspective across school systems. Additionally, across districts in California, professionals express a need for training for general education teachers on how to better serve students who struggle and students with disabilities. This is particularly important when most general education teachers today are expected to work with students from all backgrounds and abilities (including students with disabilities).
Building trusting relationships with students and families. Comments along the lines of: “Parents are working all the time to put food on the table, but they absolutely want the best for their children” suggest there is a need for building stronger school-family partnerships. Generally, as shown by experience and research, we know that Latinx families deeply care about their children’s education. Still, there seems to be a gap in understanding and interpretation of cultural differences. For example, Carmen Alvizures, a District Resource Teacher in California, explained to us that it is common for parents in Latin American countries to fully trust educators with education-related decisions about their child. Hence, a Latinx, immigrant-origin parent might be more likely to take an agreeable, passive role during a discussion about their child’s possible disability during an IEP meeting. This passive and agreeable behavior should not be interpreted as a sign of lack of involvement or disinterest, but instead, educators could consider this behavior as a sign of trust and respect towards education professionals. Engaging all families, getting to know them on a personal level, may help educators understand the child as a whole and address issues of equity in education for Latinx students.
Additional recommendations
Report and analyze accurate data systems: You cannot fix what you cannot measure. In our SPP-TAP work with school districts, we have found that school leaders report systemic data errors at the local and state level. This presents two important challenges. First, inaccurate data systems can lead to school districts that might be incorrectly identified as significant disproportionate when they are not. Alternatively, this could also mean that school districts are not being identified as significantly disproportionate, when in fact, they are. Fixing data errors at the local level and state level is critical, for you cannot fix what you cannot measure. Importantly, the construct of Hispanic/Latinx for disproportionality needs to be deconstructed within local contexts. As mentioned earlier, many English Learners are Latinx, but not all. It might be more instructive to differentiate disproportionality between English Learners and Latinx/Hispanic within school districts. It is important to note that disproportionality for Latinx students exists in both linguistic (ELs who are Latinx) and cultural (Latinx English only students) contexts. One speech pathologist put it this way in terms of English Learners: “The pre-referral intervention, as seen by general education teachers, is special education.”
Professional development for general education teachers: they are all our students
Today in California, most general education teachers are expected to work with students with disabilities. Nonetheless, we consistently find that general education teachers report a need for professional development in this area. Importantly, some general education teachers express, in various ways, that “they didn’t sign up for this.” There is a strong need for professional development for general education on how to serve students from various ability levels. Inclusive frameworks and training for general education teachers, such as Universal Design for Learning and multi-tiered systems of supports, can help address this need. This could be built through schools and institutions of higher education in the training of future teachers.
More than 50 years after the court ruling on the Diana v. State Board of Education case, school districts in California continue to struggle to provide an equitable education for Latinx students and English Learners. Latinx students make up nearly 60 percent of students with disabilities in the state (CDE, 2018). This shows there is a need for all teachers, general education and special education, and service providers to recognize awareness of the cultural differences and impact of language acquisition. This is a fundamental part of the work we all do with all students. The interaction of culture and language differences and disability pose an important challenge to all educators. Improving equity for Latinx students begins with improving the type and quality of data available. Similarly, continuing to invest in professional development building the skills of educators to work with diverse populations is critical in an increasingly diverse state. Finally, improving the data analysis of English Learners and Long-Term English Language Learners can empower educators to respond at early signs of struggle.
Special thanks to Connie Silva and Susan Stewart from SPP-TAP for providing feedback on earlier versions of this article.
Note: Quotes from interviewees have been edited to ensure confidentiality and reflect sentiments across various school systems in California.
California Department of Education, (2020). 2019-20 “At-Risk” and Long-Term English Learners (LTEL) by Grade Statewide Report. Retrieved from:
California Department of Education, (2018). Special Education Enrollment by Ethnicity and Disability Statewide Report. Retrieved from:
California Department of Education, (2020). 2019-20 “At-Risk” and Long-Term English Learners (LTEL) by Grade Statewide Report. Retrieved from:
Cruz, R. A., & Rodl, J. E. (2018). An Integrative Synthesis of Literature on Disproportionality in Special Education. The Journal of Special Education, 52(1), 50–63.
Sherwood, B, California State University, Los Angeles. Accessed:
Paul Luelmo is an assistant professor at San Diego State University. Dustin Bindreiff is an independent education consultant.
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