Research shows disparity in K12 special needs reporting

How do districts define and identify their special needs students? And how does that compare with the way it is done in other districts and states? Moreover, do these students receive the help they need?

A new report, the first in a series by the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, sets out to answer those questions, and establishes baselines for future research. “Crossing the Line” is based on surveys of more than 3,600 educators in 19 different roles.

Ultimately, the research series aims to provide actionable insights to help states and local districts address the needs of special needs students equitably. Those insights include determining which measures work to successfully address the needs of students, quantifying that success and sharing the story.

“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has provided states with increased flexibility that resulted in special education identification and classification rates varying dramatically from state to state” says Thomas Reap, co-author of the report.

“We have discovered that variation in special education classification across the country doesn’t necessarily mean educators disagree with who gets identified.”

Key findings

When asked about the number of students classified for special education in their system, the majority (56 percent) of participants believed the appropriate number of students were classified.

Seventeen percent felt that somewhat more students should be classified and 21 percent felt that somewhat fewer students should be classified with disabilities in their school system.

While educators largely agreed with their states’ special education practices, those state practices were highly varied. Many survey respondents cited the Response to Intervention (RTI) program as the reason fewer students are classified for special education. RTIs enable schools to identify and assist struggling students earlier.


Despite the fact that classification rates vary greatly across states, the majority of nationwide respondents believe that the appropriate number of students are classified in their local system.

States with the highest classification percentages—such as New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Pennsylvania—are clustered in the Northeast, while states with the lowest classification percentages are spread across the country.

Not surprisingly, the four states with lowest classification rates (Texas, Idaho, Colorado and Hawaii) were more likely to agree that the appropriate number of students were classified in their school systems.

Likewise, respondents in the four states with the highest classification rates were less likely to agree that the right number of students were classified.

Most Popular