STUDY: Race Impacts Student Referrals for Gifted, Special Education

By Kenrya Rankin Oct 20, 2016

A new study suggests that a child’s race influences how well teachers will meet his or her academic, behavioral and emotional needs.

The study, conducted by New York University researcher Rachel Fish and published in the latest edition of Social Science Research, enlisted 70 third grade teachers from 14 public elementary schools. The teachers were given case studies of fictional male students, each with various combinations of race, ethnicity, English language status, academic challenges and strengths, and behavioral and emotional sensitivities. Then the teachers shared how likely they were to recommend each student for special education and for gifted—advanced studies—testing. Overall: they were more likely to refer White boys for additional academic services than their Black and Latinx counterparts, but more likely to send students of color for outside behavioral help.

Science Daily breaks down the results:

When teachers read a case study of a boy with academic challenges, meant to suggest learning disabilities, they were more likely to refer White boys than Black and Latino boys for testing. This suggests that teachers believe the White student is performing at a lower level than he is able to and should be referred for additional services, whereas for students of color, low academic performance is expected and seen as normal—and not a problem to remediate. This pattern held true when looking at White English learners and English learners of color, with more White English learners referred for testing.

Conversely, when case studies portrayed boys with behavioral challenges, teachers were more likely to refer Black and Latino boys than White boys for testing. Here, a referral suggests that the teacher perceives the student as having social, emotional or behavioral skills that are problematic enough to warrant outside help, reaffirming earlier research showing that teachers perceive misbehavior by Black boys as more aggressive and problematic than misbehavior by White boys….

In case studies where teachers read about boys with academic strength and emotional sensitivity, clues for good candidates for gifted education, teachers were more likely to refer White students for gifted testing. In other words, teachers may perceive high ability as a natural characteristic of White students, while they may fail to recognize high ability among students of color.

These findings are particularly relevant for students of color because, as Science Daily details, 75 percent of all education referrals originate with instructors.

“This subjectivity has implications for inequalities in education by race and ethnicity: students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are perceived and treated differently in schools,” Fish told Science Daily. “If students are placed in special education and gifted programs differentially because of racial bias among teachers, then students are likely receiving inappropriate educational services.”

Read the study abstract here.