Teachers play an important role in identifying students who may
benefit from special and gifted education. Earlier research found that
75% of referrals originate from teachers (as opposed to parents
or medical professionals), and teachers' referrals are generally
confirmed through additional testing.
Teacher referrals for special and gifted education testing are
subjective and may be swayed by a student's race, revealed a research
published in the journal Social Science Research
‘Teachers are more likely to see academic challenges as disabilities when white boys exhibit them, and are more likely to perceive behavioral challenges as disabilities among boys of color.’
The study found that teachers are more likely to see academic
challenges as disabilities when white boys exhibit them than when boys
of color exhibit the same difficulties. Conversely, teachers are more
likely to perceive behavioral challenges as disabilities among boys of
color than when white boys have the same behavioral difficulties.
"Previous research tends to be polarized between the argument that
students of color are over-represented in special education due to racial
bias in schools, and the argument that they are actually
underrepresented in special education once you account for socioeconomic
status and other related factors. This research finds racial bias, but
it's more complicated, with both underrepresentation and
overrepresentation of students of color," said Rachel Fish, assistant
professor of special education at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture,
Education, and Human Development and the study's author.
Because students of color are overrepresented in special education
and underrepresented in gifted education, it has been assumed that
teachers may be making biased decisions when referring students for
testing. But existing research on teacher bias has been inconclusive.
In this study, Fish examined the role of student race and ethnicity
in teachers categorizing student needs as exceptional and in need of
either special or gifted education services. She conducted an experiment
involving 70 third grade teachers from 14 public elementary schools in
Teachers were asked to read case studies that each described a
fictional male student. In different versions of the case studies, Fish
changed certain factors about the student: his race and ethnicity,
whether he was an English learner, and factors that might suggest he was
The factors included academic challenges, suggesting a
learning disability; behavioral challenges, suggesting an emotional
disorder; or academic strengths with emotional sensitivity, suggesting
that he is gifted and talented. After reading a case study, teachers
were asked the likelihood that they would refer each student for special
education or gifted testing.
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.
"Moreover, a referral for behavioral challenges could result in a
label of an 'emotional disorder,' which carries a high degree of stigma
and could put students of color at a disadvantage," said Fish.
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.
"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. 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," said Fish.
"It is important to note, however, that these findings are not about
blaming teachers for being racist. Rather, this research reveals how
racism in our society affects the everyday work of teachers. I believe
teachers are doing their best to support all students in their
classrooms, yet racial bias affects everyone, often in ways that we're