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Examining Link Between Income and Placement of Students with Disabilities


  • What role does income have in the need for special education?
  • Abt and our partners analyzed state administrative data.
  • The findings suggest the need to monitor income disproportionality.
The Challenge

Federal law requires annual state reports on special education identification and educational placement and identification of school districts with disproportionate racial placements. Income status is not a factor when determining disproportionality. But recent research in Massachusetts on identification, placement, and academic performance of students with disabilities found a higher likelihood that low-income students would be identified as needing and be placed in special education compared with higher-income students.  

The Approach

Under a grant from the Spencer Foundation, Abt staff, Harvard University partners, and others expanded on this research by examining in three states the relationships between income status and the identification and placement patterns of students with disabilities. They used state administrative data to examine the probability that low-income students would be identified for special education and receive separate placements and compared the data with higher-income students.  

The Results

The report found that low-income and non-low-income African-American students are represented at higher rates in special education. It found considerable differences in the identification and segregation rates of low-income and non-low-income white students. For Hispanic students, the pattern differed across states. The data suggest that schools may inappropriately identify some low-income students for special education. The findings suggest the need to monitor income disproportionality and potentially to enable more mainstreaming of low-income special ed students. Learn more: