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Minority Students Missing Out on Speech and Language Services, Study Finds

Black children, Hispanic children, and children who come from non-English speaking households are less likely to receive speech and language services in kindergarten than white children who are otherwise similar to them, says a new study published in the journal Exceptional Children.

About 18 percent of school-aged children with disabilities are identified as having a speech or language impairment, making it the second-largest disability category recognized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (Children with "specific learning disabilities" are the most prevalent, at about 40 percent.)

There are good reasons for trying to identify and treat the disorder early. Some studies have shown that a child with a speech or language impairment has a higher risk of reading and behavioral problems compared to typically developing peers, and later on, a higher risk of unemployment or underemployment.

This study was produced by the same research team that in 2015 said that minority students overall were less likely than similar white peers to be identified for special education. That finding was controversial in special education circles, since other research has held that minorities are overrepresented in some disability categories.

Federal policy has also been built around the idea of rooting out overrepresentation. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education released a rule that will require states to use a standard approach to calculating whether their districts were overenrolling minority students in special education compared to their white peers. Overall, the standard rule is expected to flag more districts for overrepresentation. 

But other reporting has shown that minorities are less likely to get special education services. A series published in 2016 by the Houston Chronicle, for example, showed that Texas districts were under state pressure to keep their special education population low—teachers reported being told to assume that academic problems among English learners were due to language problems, not disabilities

Speech and Language Service Disparities Increased for Hispanic Children

Paul L. Morgan, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, and George Farkas, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, have said that their findings are more accurate than other research because they were able to control for other factors that are related to educational outcomes.

In this new study, Morgan and Farkas used two datasets based on information gathered about children from the kindergarten class of 1998-99 and the kindergarten class of 2011-12.

In 1998-99, Hispanic children had no statistical difference from white children when it came to receiving services. In 2011-12, however, they were 46 percent less likely than white children to receive speech and language therapy in kindergarten.

Black children were 61 percent less likely than otherwise similar white children to be receiving speech and language services in 1998-99. In 2011-12, black children were 46 percent less likely to be receiving services, a statistically insignificant change. 

For children from non-English-speaking homes, their odds of receiving services for speech and language impairements were 43 percent and 50 percent lower than those from English-speaking homes in 1999 and 2011, respectively. Those disparities are not statistically different from one another. 

In an interview, Morgan said one fix could be making sure parents understand what a speech or language impairment looks like, similar to efforts to make sure parents understand the signs of autism.

"My guess is there's a pretty sharp knowledge gap that helps result in these kinds of disparities, particularly in minority communities," Morgan said. "I think the focus on overrepresentation has probably exacerbated an impression that [overenrollment] is the most widespread problem. And that's probably further reduced any information dissemination." 


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